Culture and Subcultures

39 Culture Explained

In the previous sections we explored some of the different external factors that influence consumer decision making, such as demographic, social, and situational. In this section we take a closer look at another external factor, culture: what it is; how it is defined; how it can change; and, how culture and marketing influence, inform, and reflect one another.

Since different cultures have different values, consumers have different buying habits. Marketing strategies should reflect the culture that is being targeted. The strategy should show the product or service as reinforcing the beliefs, values and customs of the targeted culture. Failing to do so can result in lost sales and opportunities.


Culture is the sum of learned beliefs, values, and customs that regulate the behavior of members of a particular society. Through our culture, we are taught how to adjust to the environmental, biological, psychological, and historical parts of our environment. Beliefs and values are guides of behavior, and customs are acceptable ways of behaving. A belief is an opinion that reflects a person’s particular knowledge and assessment of (“I believe that …”). Values are general statements that guide behavior and influence beliefs and attitudes (“Honesty is the best policy”). A value system helps people choose between alternatives in everyday life. Customs are overt modes of behavior that constitute culturally approved ways of behaving in specific situations. Customs vary among countries, regions, and even families

Culture, Customs, & the Coronavirus

At the time of writing, the Coronavirus and Covid19 has spread worldwide causing a global pandemic. Social distancing – aka physical distancing – measures are in place in nearly every community, city, and country around the world. While we physically distance ourselves from friends, family, neighbours, and strangers on the street and in grocery stores, we have to wonder how certain customs will change as a result of the pandemic? Infectious disease experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the United States, say we should never return to the custom of “shaking hands” with others. In an interview for The Journal (2020), Fauci said, “[w]hen you gradually come back, you don’t jump into it with both feet. You say, what are the things you could still do and still approach normal? One of them is absolute compulsive hand washing. The other is you don’t ever shake anybody’s hands.”

For marketers anywhere in the world, it is essential to develop a strong understanding of the local culture and its accompanying beliefs, values, and customs. Culture is how people make sense of their society, its institutions, and social order. Culture frames how and what people communicate, how they express what is proper and improper, what is desirable and detestable. Without an understanding of culture, marketers are not really even speaking the right language to the consumers they want to target. Even if the words, grammar, and pronunciation are correct, the meaning will be off.

Cultural Norms in Society

Just as culture can be seen in dress and food, it can also be seen in morality, identity, and gender roles. People from around the world differ in their views of premarital sex, religious tolerance, respect for elders, and even the importance they place on having fun. Similarly, many behaviours that may seem innate are actually products of culture. Approaches to punishment, for example, often depend on cultural norms for their effectiveness. In the United States, people who ride public transportation without buying a ticket face the possibility of being fined. By contrast, in some other societies, people caught dodging the fare are socially shamed by having their photos posted publicly. The reason this campaign of “name and shame” might work in one society but not in another is that members of different cultures differ in how comfortable they are with being singled out for attention. This strategy is less effective for people who are not as sensitive to the threat of public shaming.

There are several features of culture that are central to understanding the uniqueness and diversity of the human mind:

    1. Versatility: Culture can change and adapt. Someone from the state of Orissa, in India, for example, may have multiple identities. She might see herself as Oriya when at home and speaking her native language. At other times, such as during the national cricket match against Pakistan, she might consider herself Indian. This is known as situational identity.
    2. Sharing: Culture is the product of people sharing with one another. Humans cooperate and share knowledge and skills with other members of their networks. The ways they share, and the content of what they share, helps make up culture. Older adults, for instance, remember a time when long-distance friendships were maintained through letters that arrived in the mail every few months. Contemporary youth culture accomplishes the same goal through the use of instant text messages on smart phones.
    3. Accumulation: Cultural knowledge is cumulative. That is, information is “stored.” This means that a culture’s collective learning grows across generations. We understand more about the world today than we did 200 years ago, but that doesn’t mean the culture from long ago has been erased by the new. For instance, members of the Haida culture—a First Nations people in British Columbia, Canada—profit from both ancient and modern experiences. They might employ traditional fishing practices and wisdom stories while also using modern technologies and services.
    4. Patterns: There are systematic and predictable ways of behaviour or thinking across members of a culture. Patterns emerge from adapting, sharing, and storing cultural information. Patterns can be both similar and different across cultures. For example, in both Canada and India it is considered polite to bring a small gift to a host’s home. In Canada, it is more common to bring a bottle of wine and for the gift to be opened right away. In India, by contrast, it is more common to bring sweets, and often the gift is set aside to be opened later.

Culture is Learned

It’s important to understand that culture is learned. People aren’t born using chopsticks or being good at soccer simply because they have a genetic predisposition for it. They learn to excel at these activities because they are born in countries like Taiwan, where chopsticks are the primary eating utensils, or countries like Argentina, where playing soccer is an important part of daily life. So, how are such cultural behaviours learned? It turns out that cultural skills and knowledge are learned in much the same way a person might learn to do algebra or knit. They are acquired through a combination of explicit teaching and implicit learning — by observing and copying.

Cultural teaching can take many forms. It begins with parents and caregivers, because they are the primary influence on young children. Caregivers teach kids, both directly and by example, about how to behave and how the world works. They encourage children to be polite, reminding them, for instance, to say “Thank you.” They teach kids how to dress in a way that is appropriate for the culture. They introduce children to religious beliefs and the rituals that go with them. They even teach children how to think and feel! Adult men, for example, often exhibit a certain set of emotional expressions — such as being tough and not crying — that provides a model of masculinity for their children. This is why we see different ways of expressing the same emotions in different parts of the world.

In some societies, it is considered appropriate to conceal anger. Instead of expressing their feelings outright, people purse their lips, furrow their brows, and say little. In other cultures, however, it is appropriate to express anger. In these places, people are more likely to bare their teeth, furrow their brows, point or gesture, and yell (Matsumoto, Yoo, & Chung, 2010). Such patterns of behaviour are learned. Often, adults are not even aware that they are, in essence, teaching psychology — because the lessons are happening through observational learning.

Let’s consider a single example of a way you behave that is learned, which might surprise you. All people gesture when they speak. We use our hands in fluid or choppy motions — to point things out, or to pantomime actions in stories. Consider how you might throw your hands up and exclaim, “I have no idea!” or how you might motion to a friend that it’s time to go. Even people who are born blind use hand gestures when they speak, so to some degree this is a universal behaviour, meaning all people naturally do it. However, social researchers have discovered that culture influences how a person gestures. Italians, for example, live in a society full of gestures. In fact, they use about 250 of them (Poggi, 2002)! Some are easy to understand, such as a hand against the belly, indicating hunger. Others, however, are more difficult. For example, pinching the thumb and index finger together and drawing a line backwards at face level means “perfect,” while knocking a fist on the side of one’s head means “stubborn.”

Culture: A Learning Process

The understanding of culture as a learned pattern of views and behaviours is interesting for several reasons. First, it highlights the ways groups can come into conflict with one another. Members of different cultures simply learn different ways of behaving. Modern youth culture, for instance, interacts with technologies such as smart phones using a different set of rules than people who are in their 40s, 50s, or 60s. Older adults might find texting in the middle of a face-to-face conversation rude while younger people often do not.

These differences can sometimes become politicized and a source of tension between groups. One example of this is Muslim women who wear a hijab, or head scarf. Non-Muslims do not follow this practice, so occasional misunderstandings arise about the appropriateness of the tradition. Second, understanding that culture is learned is important because it means that people can adopt an appreciation of patterns of behaviour that are different than their own. For example, non-Muslims might find it helpful to learn about the hijab. Where did this tradition come from? What does it mean and what are various Muslim opinions about wearing one?

Finally, understanding that culture is learned can be helpful in developing self-awareness. For instance, people from the United States might not even be aware of the fact that their attitudes about public nudity are influenced by their cultural learning. While women often go topless on beaches in Europe and women living a traditional tribal existence in places like the South Pacific also go topless, it is illegal for women in some of the United States to do so. These cultural norms for modesty—reflected in government laws and policies– also enter the discourse on social issues such as the appropriateness of breast-feeding in public. Understanding that your preferences are—in many cases—the products of cultural learning might empower you to revise them if doing so will lead to a better life for you or others.

Often the differences between cultures can be identified through a closer examination of each culture’s unique practices and beliefs involving symbols, myths, rituals, and rites of passage.

Symbols, Myths, Rituals & Rites of Passage

A symbol is an object, word, or action that stands for something else, depending on the culture. Everything one does throughout their life is based and organized through cultural symbolism, which is when something represents abstract ideas or concepts. Symbols can represent a group or organization that one is affiliated with and mean different things to different people, which is why it is impossible to hypothesize how a specific culture will symbolize something. Some symbols are gained from experience, while others are gained from culture. One of the most common cultural symbols is language.

Myths and rituals are the stories and practices that define a culture. A myth is a story with symbolic elements that represents a culture’s ideals. Each culture creates its own stories to help its members understand the world. Many companies (and perhaps most advertising agencies) are in a sense in the myth business; they tell us stories that we collectively absorb. Some marketers tell these stories more overtly than others: Disney stages about 2,000 Cinderella weddings every year; the princess bride wears a tiara and rides to the park’s lakeside wedding pavilion in a horse-drawn coach, complete with two footmen in gray wigs and gold lamé pants (Marr, 2007; Holson, 2003). And the Shrek movies remind us that even the ugliest suitor can land the princess if his heart is in the right place.

A ritual is a set of multiple symbolic behaviours that occurs in a fixed sequence and is repeated periodically (Rook, 1985). We all engage in private consumer rituals, whether this involves grooming activities that we perform the same way every morning or that obligatory trip to Starbucks on the way to school. Gift-giving is also a type of ritual: birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, house-warmings, and even Valentine’s are examples of celebrations involving gift-giving rituals. And as members of a culture we share public rituals such as watching the Olympics, the WorldCup, or even tuning in each week to vote on our favourite reality show (such as American Idol, or the Voice). Advertisers often create messages that tie in to these myths and rituals, such as selling HDTVs for the Super Bowl and Doritos to share with your friends as you watch the game.

Beyond observational learning, cultures also use rituals to teach people what is important. For example, young people who are interested in becoming Buddhist monks often have to endure rituals that help them shed feelings of “specialness” or superiority — feelings that run counter to Buddhist doctrine. To do this, they might be required to wash their teacher’s feet, scrub toilets, or perform other menial tasks. Similarly, many Jewish adolescents go through the process of bar and bat mitzvah. This is a ceremonial reading from scripture that requires the study of Hebrew and, when completed, signals that the youth is ready for full participation in public worship.

Rites of Passage are a common type of ritual that often taken place to mark a significant change or transition in a person’s life. These may occur to mark happy occasions, such as graduations, weddings, or having children and more sombre occasions such as the passing away of a loved one. The rituals surrounding rites of passage differ from one culture to another and can even be diverse within a culture. Marketers may position their products or services as necessary components to accompany a rite of passage: be it a young person’s “first shave”, a couple’s engagement announcement, or a family’s first pet.

Understanding the changing nature of culture is the first step toward appreciating how it helps people. The concept of cultural intelligence is the ability to understand why members of other cultures act in the ways they do. Rather than dismissing foreign behaviours as weird, inferior, or immoral, people high in cultural intelligence can appreciate differences even if they do not necessarily share another culture’s views or adopt its ways of doing things.

Cultural Gatekeepers

In 1960, journalist A. J. Liebling (1904-1963) wryly observed that “freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” Although he may not have put it in those terms, Liebling was talking about the role of gatekeepers in the media industry, another way in which cultural values influence mass communication. Gatekeepers are the people who help determine which stories make it to the public, including reporters who decide what sources to use, and editors who pick what gets published and which stories make it to the front page. Media gatekeepers are part of culture and thus have their own cultural values, whether consciously or unconsciously. In deciding what counts as newsworthy, entertaining, or relevant, gatekeepers use their own values to create and shape what gets presented to the wider public.

Observing how distinct cultures and subcultures present the same story can be indicative of those cultures’ various cultural values. Another way to look critically at today’s media messages is to examine how the media has functioned in the world and in your own country during different cultural periods.

Have you ever heard a story in the news — say a major political or sports headline — discussed by two (or more) media outlets in a completely opposing manner? Perhaps the politician or athlete has been applauded by one outlet, and then vilified by another? Media gatekeepers are part of culture and thus have their own cultural values, whether consciously or unconsciously. In deciding what counts as newsworthy, entertaining, or relevant, gatekeepers use their own values to create and shape what gets presented to the wider public. Conversely, gatekeepers may decide that some events are unimportant or uninteresting to consumers. Those events may never reach the eyes or ears of a larger public.

From a market perspective, consider the role of media & entertainment gatekeepers and the power they possess over what we watch on TV and which movies we see in the theatre. If gatekeepers green light entertainment that perpetuates gender stereotypes in TV and the white-washing of historical events in film, what effect does this have on our collective understanding of culture?

Representation & Gatekeepers

In their article, “Cultural stereotypes as gatekeepers: increasing girls’ interest in computer science and engineering by diversifying stereotypes,” Cheryan, Master, and Meltzoff (2015) discuss how gatekeepers can have a profound impact on representation. Despite having made significant inroads into many traditionally male-dominated fields (e.g., biology, chemistry), women continue to be underrepresented in computer science and engineering. Computer science and engineering are stereotyped in modern American culture as male-oriented fields that involve social isolation, an intense focus on machinery, and inborn brilliance. These stereotypes are compatible with qualities that are typically more valued in men than women in American culture. As a result, when computer science and engineering stereotypes are salient, girls report less interest in these fields than their male peers.

Popular movies and television shows like Real Genius, The Big Bang Theory, and Silicon Valley depict computer scientists and engineers as mostly white (and more recently Asian) males, socially unskilled, and singularly obsessed with technology. Similarly, portrayals of technology companies in popular newspapers and books often depict the “startup culture” that infuses some technology and engineering jobs (e.g., Guo, 2014; Miller, 2014). This is unfortunate because in reality such portrayals depict at best only a small percentage of the jobs in computer science and engineering (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014). Yet high-school students report that their ideas about what scientists are like are influenced more by the media than by any other source (Steinke et al., 2007). Even brief exposures to television portrayals can influence attitudes toward the group portrayed (Weisbuch et al., 2009).

However, altering these stereotypes—by broadening the representation of the people who do this work, the work itself, and the environments in which it occurs—significantly increases girls’ sense of belonging and interest in the field. Academic stereotypes thus serve as gatekeepers, driving girls away from certain fields and constraining their learning opportunities and career aspirations.

Acculturation, Assimilation, & Multiculturalism

There is tremendous ethnic, linguistic, and cultural diversity throughout Canada and the United States, largely resulting from a long history and ongoing identification as a “nation of immigrants” that attracted millions of newcomers from every continent. Still, elected officials and residents ardently disagree about how the United States should approach this diversity and incorporate immigrant, ethnic, and cultural minority groups into the larger framework of American society.

The fundamental question is whether cultural minority groups should be encouraged to forego their ethnic and cultural identities and acculturate to the values, traditions, and customs of mainstream culture or should be allowed and encouraged to retain key elements of their identities and heritages. This is a highly emotional question. Matters of cultural identity are often deeply personal and associated with strongly held beliefs about the defining features of their countries’ national identities.

Assimilation encourages and may even demand that members of ethnic and immigrant minority groups abandon their native customs, traditions, languages, and identities as quickly as possible and adopt those of mainstream society—“When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Advocates of assimilation generally view a strong sense of national unity based on a shared linguistic and cultural heritage as the best way to promote a strong national identity and avoid ethnic conflict. They point, for example, to ethnic warfare and genocide in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s and to recent independence movements by French Canadians in Quebec and in Scotland as evidence of negative consequences of groups retaining a strong sense of loyalty and identification with their ethnic or linguistic communities. The “English as the Official Language” movement in the United States is another example. People are concerned that U.S. unity is weakened by immigrants who do not learn to speak English. In recent years, the U.S. Census Bureau has identified more than 300 languages spoken in the United States. In 2010, more than 60 million people representing 21 per cent of the total U.S. population spoke a language other than English at home and 38 million of those people spoke Spanish.

Cultural Concepts in Everyday Marketing

In marketing, when a product becomes removed or disassociated with its original ethnic group, we call this process de-ethnicization. These items become absorbed by a mainstream or dominant culture, much in the way bagels, pasta, and yoga have.

Belk, Wallendorf, & Sherry (1991) write that, “for many people, consumption has become a vehicle for achieving transcendent experiences.” Whether we are adorning ourselves with tattoos that carry meaning, symbol, and significance or bidding on a limited pair of custom Nike sneakers, consumer behaviour has deep roots in sacred consumption practices. While sacralization describes the process of everyday objects, people, or events developing sacred status (the locks of hair from my baby’s first haircut; the collar that belonged to my first pet; and, my grandmother’s Scrabble board that I inherited are all sacred items to me), de-sacralization describes the opposite of that.  We see the erasure of sacred symbolism, or the de-sacralization of objects, people, or events, occur when sacred items become absorbed and commercialized in pop culture and the greater consumer culture.

Consider the over-hyped consumerism surrounding Halloween and Christmas. I once went to a (fabulous) brewery in the town Haarlem (The Netherlands) that used to be a former church! The term we apply to consumer objects and events  are ordinary and absent of any sacred meaning or association is profane. Profane consumption is a term used to describe the kinds of purchases we make that are part of our everyday lives. Renewing my gym membership, attending a professional workshop, or picking up take-out on the way home from work are examples of profane consumption.

Multiculturalism takes a different view of assimilation, arguing that ethnic and cultural diversity is a positive quality that enriches a society and encouraging respect for cultural differences. The basic belief behind multiculturalism is that group differences, in and of themselves, do not spark tension, and society should promote tolerance for differences rather than urging members of immigrant, ethnic, and cultural minority groups to shed their customs and identities. Vivid examples of multiculturalism can be seen in major cities across the United States, such as New York, where ethnic neighborhoods such as Chinatown and Little Italy border one another, and Los Angeles, which features many diverse neighborhoods, including Little Tokyo, Koreatown, Filipinotown, Little Armenia, and Little Ethiopia.

The ultimate objective of multiculturalism is to promote peaceful coexistence while allowing each ethnic community to preserve its unique heritage and identity. Multiculturalism is the official governmental policy of Canada; it was codified in 1988 under the Canadian Multiculturalism Act, which declares that “multiculturalism reflects the cultural and racial diversity of Canadian society and acknowledges the freedom of all members of Canadian society to preserve, enhance, and share their cultural heritage.”

Student Op-Ed: America, If You Had to Pick…The Statue of Liberty or a Bottle of Coke?

Coca-Cola’s unrivaled and global success is primarily due to its ability to establish itself as an American cultural symbol. Solomon (2017, p.429) defines a symbol as an “object that represents something else” or a physical manifestation of a set of beliefs. In the case of Coca-Cola, the brand has long represented the western notions of freedom and individuality and is, to date, synonymous with American culture.

Coca-Cola’s integration into mass culture in the U.S.A. speaks to its prominence and popularity within American culture. Consider the fact that in 1986 Atlanta, a parade was held to celebrate a joint-centennial of Coca-Cola and the Statue of Liberty (Lilienheim Angelico, 1998, Part III, 2:42 – 3.10). Furthermore, during the 1996 Atlanta Olympic games torch rally, the brand is displayed alongside and is in equal proportion to the Olympic rings (Lilienheim Angelico, 1998, Part III, 4:44 – 4:51). In both instances, Coca-Cola is positioned as a wholly celebrated American symbol of freedom and the American dream, one which is worthy of the world’s attention. Not only does this signify the weight that the brand carries but it also demonstrates how a brand can establish its longevity by weaving itself into national culture.

Aside from its global recognition as an American symbol, Coca-Cola soon became a fortress brand, which Solomon (2017) defines as a brand that becomes embedded in our everyday life. In the same way that tea was a household drink in China, England or India or wine in Italy, Coca-Cola was a staple drink at dinner tables in the U.S.A. (Lilienheim Angelico, 1998, Part III, 3:52 – 4:18). According to the documentary, the average family in 1978 Rome, Georgia alone consumed 3,200 bottles of coke a year (Lilienheim Angelico, 1998, Part II, 14:05- 14:45).

If making your mark on the world stage or anchoring your product into a daily ritual wasn’t enough to transform a brand into a global corporate giant, try shifting an entire culture. Brands are constantly shaped by cultural values and norms, however, the circular nature of this relationship also means that some brands have the power to influence culture and impact a society’s value system. Haddon Sundblom’s interpretation of St. Nicolas as an old, stout, and jolly man in a “Coca-Cola red” suit in a 1931 advertisement soon became the widely-accepted image of the holiday figure known today (Lilienheim Angelico, 1998, Part I, 21:15 – 21:46). Although, it originated as a concept for Coca-Cola’s marketing, this image of Santa is one that is now ingrained in western culture.

While it is impressive that Coca-Cola has reached this status, I can’t help but think of the immense influence that brands like Coca-Cola have on our lives and our culture, whether we know it or not. I was extremely shocked and a little disappointed to discover the origin story of the modern version of Santa Claus. The values of authenticity and tradition that I once attributed to the Christmas holiday seem to have disappeared now that I know the figure central to the holiday was but a mere character in a Coca-Cola advertisement. I understand that brands operate as capitalist entities in order to survive but it is concerning when their conscious marketing efforts inadvertently shift behaviours within culture or erode rich traditions and practices altogether.

Text Attributions


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