Toward the Contextualization of Consumer Behavior

ABSTRACT - The discipline of consumer behavior has distinctly western roots and tends to disregard fundamental cross cultural differences in motivation and decision making style. In particular, the literature largely disregards essential variations in world views and assumes a largely individualistic consumer acting rationally from the perspective of linear logic. As a result our models and perspectives suffer to a degree from lack of cross-cultural validity. The need is for contextualization which takes these fundamental differences more seriously than we have to date.


James F. Engel (1985) ,"Toward the Contextualization of Consumer Behavior", in SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, eds. Jagdish N. Sheth and Chin Tiong Tan, Singapore : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 1-4.

Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, 1985     Pages 1-4


James F. Engel, Wheaton College, Illinois


The discipline of consumer behavior has distinctly western roots and tends to disregard fundamental cross cultural differences in motivation and decision making style. In particular, the literature largely disregards essential variations in world views and assumes a largely individualistic consumer acting rationally from the perspective of linear logic. As a result our models and perspectives suffer to a degree from lack of cross-cultural validity. The need is for contextualization which takes these fundamental differences more seriously than we have to date.


Consumer behavior as a discipline in its own right really dates back to the late 1950's, and it has grown to healthy maturity in a remarkably short time (Engel 1981). Yet, it is fair to say that its roots are exclusively western, thus presenting a real challenge to this first truly international gathering of ACR.

There is no question that consumer behavior has growing relevance in many emerging countries of the world. The existence of this gathering is testimony to that fact. But we are disturbingly far from achieving a truly international perspective, in spite of the existence in our ranks of increasing numbers with non-American or European names.

For the most part the writing and research with culture as a variable has focused on subcultures in western societies, Europe, or a limited number of rapidly-developed countries largely in Asia. All of these settings have in common the homogenizing effects of education, urbanization, and decline of the extended family. In no sense are we isolating the unique issues which exist in most of the world.

What do we have to say, for example, in Nigeria which has over 200 tribes, paralyzing foreign exchange problems,'social deterioration, and a military government trying to reverse decades of corruption? Or Ecuador in which a few rich families dominate while the poor sink further into economic destitution? Or Uganda in which there is no economi . c superstructure, thus leading to a life of subsistence farming and barter?

In the last dozen years, 1 have been in more than 50 countries, working as I now do in the application of marketing concepts to religious communication. Much of what I previously assumed to be true has been modified as I have come to take cultural anthropology seriously. I have found myself to be disturbing ethnocentric in many assumptions and practices.

Generalization from what we have learned from the highly developed countries, in other words, can be a fatal trap. In many ways we need to return to basic premises and to contextualize consumer behavior.

Contextualization is the process whereby marketing strategies are designed to be culturally relevant and meaningful, taking account of differences in consumer motivation and behavior. When we take contextualization seriously, our focus changes and becomes much richer.


Recently Paul Miniard of Ohio State joined Roger Blackwell and me in preparation of the 5th edition of Consumer Behavior which will be published in a few months. I have endured the tyranny of book revision for more than 20 years now, but this has given me the advantage of perspective on assumptions and directions in the field.

It has become increasingly clear to me that most of what we have published to date assumes the following: (1) man is a rational problem solver, (2) with a world view that is basically similar regardless of context, who (3) makes a largely individualistic choice with only incidental social influence. While this may be true in the west, these premises soon become seriously defective beyond its boundaries.

The Rational Problem Solver Assumption

Most of our thinking to date assumes that the consumer approaches buying decisions rationally in the sense that alternatives are evaluated on the basis of carefully selected information. Information processing is done systematically, often with a linear compensatory approach. Multiattribute models capture the relationship between changed belief, attitude, intention, and behavior.

A highly linear logic is hypothesized in which A leads to B and so on. Inconsistency is not tolerated as the consumer presses toward the optimum choice. If this pattern of linear logic does not exist, however, such conceptual frameworks as the EKB model and multi-attribute models are less applicable.

Does the conscious problem solver assumption hold universally? I have had a chance to test this as I have developed a model of religious decision behavior which comes from these roots (Engel 197). It has received general validation around the world, but we have been forced to make modifications.

Let me mention just one example. Those with a Hindu philosophy can hold many religious beliefs simultaneously which most westerners would deem to be contradictory. Yet to them, there is no contradiction at all, because basic reasoning and thinking is based on an entirely different pattern of logic. It goes without saying that this can carry over into all phases of life, including buying decisions.

The point is that linear logic and its patterns of conscious problem-solving are not universal. Hence consumer behavior can assume highly variant forms. We must take this into account if we are to internationalize our discipline properly.

Differing World Views

World view defines the way in which we see ourselves in relation to all else that exists. Americans generally are pervasive optimists that they can, by their own efforts, change circumstances and achieve progress. Contrast this world view with the Muslim who fatalistically accepts setbacks as being the will of Allah.

World view consists of those fundamental values that psychographic research usually does not surface. The analysis of world view assumes significance in anthropology but rarely find its way into marketing.

Here is an example of the marketing significance of differing world views. Usually it is simplistically assumed that the possession of consumer goods is a universal way to experience a high and rising standard of living. For the Masai Tribe in Kenya, however, wealth is measured in terms of cattle, and the ways of contemporary society are strictly resisted. Even educated, wealthy Masai generally resist marketing efforts which contradict the way of life they have chosen.

There is some tacit recognition by most analysts of consumer behavior that differences in value exist, but rarely do we bring world view into the focus it deserves. Hence, our consumer behavior models can lack universality, leading to the need for contextualization.

Complexity of Social Influence

All marketers are aware of theories of social influence, but there has been little new research on this subject for 20 years or more. We seem to assume that people make decisions on an individualistic basis for the most part with minimal interaction other than with a spouse. In urbanized society where the extended family no longer functions and people are isolated this may be true, but this is not the case in most of the world.

Where in consumer behavior literature do we see discussion of the implications of tribal mores, clan structures, dominance of the father, people movements (situations where an entire social grouping adopts an innovation), and so on? Often individual desires must be totally subliminated, a phenomenon which we largely ignore.

The Outcome: Standardized Marketing

Erik Elinder has advanced the position that consumer behavior is subject to cultural universals, with the result that marketing strategy can be standardized (Erlander 1965). To some degree he is right. It is estimated that about two thirds of the marketing programs of major multinational companies are standardized (Sorenson and K. Wiechman 1975).

To some degree it is true that behavior is universal because of common needs. Yet, the success of marketers who have followed standardized marketing is open to question. Japanese, for example, respond to ads stressing the affective component of advertising rather than the strictly cognitive elements of product information. This behavior is a reflection of world view that cannot be disregarded in marketing strategy, and this is just one isolated instance.

It is my opinion that standardized marketing, if it is to be undertaken, must be justified on the basis of solid consumer research based on a contextualized view of consumer behavior. Failure to do so reflects naive ethnocentrism.


A philosophy of contextualization begins with the assumption that cultural differences are to be expected and adapted to. It demands an outlook which recognizes that each of us views the world through our own cultural filter which must be put aside to the maximum possible extent. Moreover, our research agenda demands a different focus.

Do Not Accept a Western Research Agenda

While there is no one standardized approach followed by consumer researchers, many today will tackle problems using the rational problem solver paradigm. This may be altogether appropriate in many situations, but contextualization suggests a different agenda.

Begin With Analysis of World View

Earlier I made explicit reference to decision styles other than linear logic. In the most basic sense, these ways of thinking are a component of world view and will be treated as such here.

When examining world views, we are forced back to the philosophic premises of life. Western-oriented researchers may find themselves in very strange water when analyzing religion and philosophy, but it is here that some of the greatest insights are found. It is not unusual to find that the consumer goods inventory of the west is alien rather than attractive.

Psychographic research can unearth some values and beliefs cross culturally, but it falls short in that people find it difficult to articular their philosophy of life and existence. Researches have recognized this fact and hence resort to additional tools such as participant observation. There is a rich literature on this subject which receives little consideration in our circles. Useful studies are published by such agencies as UNESCO, universities, and governments.

We soon discover that needs are variable, not universal. Is it reasonable to assume that all women want to be slim in order to appear sexually attractive? This is not the case at all as any African will quickly answer. In fact, slimness is not, desirable in many places, thus destroying the apppeal of many western products. Knowledge of world view and basic values will quickly reveal such facts and avoid the marketing strategy wreckages which are so well known.

Unless this is the starting point, the consumer researcher will be hardpressed to explain why people behave as they do. He or she would be at a loss to understand why an automobile cannot be sold to a middle class Kenyan on the basis of prestige and "oneup-smanship." No cognitive model will reveal the basic fact that conspicuous consumption of this type violates world view in this East African Country.

Anticipate That Social Influence May Be A Dominant Factor

The first born son in many parts of the world is obligated to care for his entire extended family. His personal choices are strongly restricted, and no marketing influence can change this cultural value. In other situations, the father will make most decisions for children until they leave home. Even after that time, many will defer to parents on major decisions. It does little good to stress brand attributes in such circumstances.

It is time to return to the basic literature on diffusion of innovations. Much of this is cross cultural in nature and documents how social influence is expressed. Also, sociologists have generated a vast literature on the family. Don't neglect such sources.

What I am saying is that the tacit attention given to social influence in our western consumer behavior literature does a vast disservice when the focus is cross cultural. Here again, some of us will find ourselves on some alien turf, especially if we are cognitive psychologists with a number crunching orientation.

Be Aware of Non-Verbal Communication

"Here are the four reasons you should buy this computer." Such an appeal may fail in Korea for the reason that the number 4 has distinctly unfavorable connotations. Red cars are unpopular in East Africa, because red is not a favorable color.

Many such illustrations as this can be given, and it almost seems trivial to mention them here. Nonetheless, violations in gestures used, clothing styles, colors, and so on have been the reason why many cross cultural marketing ventures have failed.

Westerners often have no grasp of non-verbal communication systems, and we do our students a disservice by not teaching on this subject. Mistakes here can undermine credibility and undo all else that we teach and do.

If there ever has been a plea for "back to the basics," this is it.

Take a Culturally Holistic Perspective

The study of consumers in cultures other than our own cannot neglect broad social and economic issues which often dominate strategy. Would it be advisable to attempt to sell VCR's to Nigeria at this point in time?

They will appeal to many as sales figures will attest. But this country is in dire economic straits and is forced to conserve foreign exchange stringently. The decisions on what to import, therefore, go far beyond the individual marketer and involve societal and economic considerations. This is what I mean by "holistic."

What bothers me the most is that interest in cross cultural marketing is primarily exploitative. The goal is to open markets for products regardless of their social merit in the total context of the situation. And so we move ahead with sugar-laced soft drinks, high cholesterol snacks, and so on and often undermine rather than enhance the well being of the people we are reaching.

Isn't it about time that we change the basically amoral nature of the discipline in which we are united? I have argued for this elsewhere (Engel 1981) but feel that I am mostlytalkingto myself. Nonetheless I stick to my guns. Issues of right and wrong must enter into our marketing deliberations. A holistic perspective really is not an option if we take world responsibilities seriously.

Two-Way Dialogue Building a World Perspective

For too long the west has dominated the literature, but the west is in the distinct minority in terms of world population. Isn't it time that this field assume a true world perspective? To the non-westerners I simply make one plea--start teaching the rest of us what you are learning as you contextualize consumer behavior. We have much to learn from you.

Just a word now to my non-western friends teaching at North American universities. What can you contribute to this process of contextualization by staying in the west? Trained leaders such as yourselves are desperately needed in your own home countries. It is time for you to take a major role in helping to solve the problems of world economic crisis. Use your research skills where they can make a lasting difference and teach us what you are learning. The whole field will be richer if you do.


A contextualized approach to the understanding of consumer behavior is imperative. The western consumer research agenda is valuable but incomplete. If our discipline is to have a true world perspective we must broaden our sights.


Engel, James F., (1981), "The Discipline of Consumer Behavior: Permanent Adolesence or Maturity?" in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. VIII, Kent B.Monroe, ed., Ann Arbor: Association for Consumer Research, 12-14.

Engel, James F. (1979), Contemporary Christian Communications, Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Erlander, Erik (1965), "How International Can European Advertising Be?" Journal of Marketing, 29 (April), 7-11.

Sorenson, Ralph Z. and Wiechmann, Ulrich E. (1975-), "How multinationals View Marketing Standardization," Harvard Business Review, 53 (May-June), 38-56.

Engel (1981).



James F. Engel, Wheaton College, Illinois


SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives | 1985

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