Sunday, 17 August 2014

Myth, Marketing and Motivation I: What really drives your consumer behaviour?


A traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events, e.g.,
ancient Celtic myths.
A fictitious or imaginary person or thing.
An exaggerated or idealized conception of a person or thing.


What drives your consumer behaviour? Is it a physical need such as hunger that drives you to purchase something to eat? Do you make rational choices, carefully calculating the calorie and vitamin content of your food? Or does some higher level motivation such as self esteem influence your purchase of that healthy spinach salad?

Can marketers create needs? Or, can we only shape and satisfy wants? As a consumer, do you always know what you want or need? Even more puzzling, are you always aware of the roots of your motivation(s) to consume?

Do you think it is possible that a myth might stimulate your consumption? If your experience was like mine, you had an English teacher in high school who taught Greek and Roman mythology. Keeping all those gods and goddesses straight may have seemed like an impossible task - why bother?  Well, in case you haven't noticed, mythology is making a big comeback. 

(To see the season 2 trailer. warning: graphic imagery)

We know that the Greeks, Romans, Celts, Vikings, Norse, and Icelandic peoples had myths. But what about closer to home and our own time period. Do myths still exist? And if they do, how do they work in the marketplace?

Consider this advertisement for Marlboro cigarettes. The man's clothing, his hat, and the rope or lariat over this shoulder tell us that he is a cowboy. Would you consider cowboys to be an aspiration group for today's smokers? How many cowboys do you know? Now take a closer look at his face and notice his skin. Do you want to have wrinkles like that? At a literal or surface level, we might conclude that this ad doesn't 'work'. That is, it doesn't motivate us to run out and purchase a package of Marlboro cigarettes. 

But according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (2014), Marlboro is the most popular cigarette brand in the United States, with sales greater than its four leading competitors combined (based on 2012 sales data). Furthermore, it is one of the top three brands preferred by young people (the others are Newport and Camel). Obviously, the ad 'works', but how?

The use of the cowboy was an intentional strategy employed by ad agency Leo Burnett as part of its efforts to re-position the brand. Previously, Marlboro had been positioned as a premium ladies' brand. The addition of filters reinforced the 'effeminate' personality of the brand. But the use of the cowboy, "an almost universal symbol of admired masculinity," contributed to a sales increase of over 3,000% (no, that's not a typo). That's because the cowboy in the advertisement acts as a symbol linked to American identity or origin myths.

The history of the United States includes many narratives about individuals with strong wills and equal personalities who helped settle the American West. The cowboy is a prototypical character - strong willed, fiercely independent and self-sufficient, made of strong moral fiber (Walle, 2000). Take another look at the ad. Notice how the cowboy is looking straight at you, making eye contact. This is not a man who would lie to you. He'll make his own decisions and stand by them. These idealized values resonate with many consumers, and although they may not aspire to wear cowboy hats and 'eat trail dust' everyday, they do aspire to live by values espoused in the ads and in the origin myths. The American frontier has been 'closed' for a century, but the myth lives on and it still motivates consumption. 

Think about some of the purchases you make and ask yourself if your motivation might be linked back to your own cultural myths.

If you are interested in learning more about the marketing strategy behind Philip Morris's use of the cowboy to sell cigarettes, check out this article in the Atlantic Monthly.

To read more about cultural branding strategies, check out Douglas Holt's book, How Brands Become Icons.

If you'd like to read more about cowboys and marketing, check out Alf Walle's book, The Cowboy Hero and Its Audience.

Sources: Walle, Alf H. (2000). The Cowboy Hero and Its Audience: Popular Culture as Market Derived Art. Madison, WI: Popular Press.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Do You Have an End of Summer Ritual?

With the start of the school year almost here, it's time to say good-bye to care-free summer days. Do you have an end of summer ritual? Perhaps a final weekend at the cottage or a last night out with friends?

Solomon, White and Dahl (2014, p. 432) define ritual as "a set of symbolic behaviours that occur in a fixed sequence and that tend to be repeated periodically." Rituals perform important functions in society and many of them are associated with consumption occasions. Some rituals remind us of the passing of time or the yearly cycle of events. For me, the smell of a new pair of leather shoes has always been connected with the start of the school year. That and the purchase of a brand new package of coloured pencils.  Other people talk about the smell of autumn leaves crunching under foot or the crack of new textbooks being opened. What sounds and smells are associated with going back to school for you? Do you have a 'back to school' ritual?

Marketers, of course, tap into our seasonal rituals and use them in promotional messages. In order for these messages to work, both the sender and the receiver have to share an understanding of the rituals being referenced. Here's a favorite example of a TV commercial that humorously inverted two seasonal rituals.

Consumption occasions can also be associated with rituals that mark important transitions in our lives. Some of these rituals might be considered 'sacred', such as a baby's baptism, child's first communion, or a marriage ceremony. Others, such as the bachelor party or tailgating at football games, might more appropriately fall under the heading 'profane' (Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry, 1989). Some rituals, like the annual fire at the Burning Man Festival, call upon the sacred to expunge the profane. As the sacred power of fire consumes the Burning Man, those in attendance celebrate the anti-consumption roots of the festival (Kozinets, 2002).

Some rituals are enacted in a public forum. Think about the laying of wreaths at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on Remembrance Day or even your eventual (let's hope!) university graduation ceremony. Other rituals can be quite private, like praying or visiting the grave of a loved one. 

Rituals can change over time, but typically they do so quite slowly. Whether we choose to adhere to the old or change with the new may say something about us, our beliefs and the society we live in. For example, asking for the bride's father's permission to marry seems to be something that most contemporary couples have decided to skip. Sometimes, change can be contested and the subject of heated, public debate. What you see in the image below may depend on how you think about the institution of marriage and marriage rituals.

As our rituals change, businesses that depend upon those rituals for their livelihood need to be aware of the changes. There may even be a strategic advantage to being the first to recognize the change and serve that segment of the market.

Belk, Russell W., Melanie Wallendorf, and John F. Sherry, Jr. (1989), "The Sacred and the Profane in Consumer Behavior: Theodicy on the Odyssey," Journal of Consumer Research, 16 (June), 1-38.

Kozinets, Robert V. (2002), "Can consumers escape the market? Emancipatory Illuminations from Burning Man," Journal of Consumer Research, 29(1), 20-38.

Solomon, Michael, Katherine White and Darren W. Dahl (2014), Consumer Behaviour: Buying, Having, Being, 6th Canadian edition. Toronto: ON: Pearson.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Why Study Genealogy?

I have been conducting research into my family
My paternal grandfather's Landing Card
history since 2006. I have traced my lines of descent back to Scotland (Gordon), Ireland (Scharf), England (Whitehorne), Germany (Flegel) and Denmark (Nielsen). I'm very interested in the social history of the Ottawa Valley and how events like the Great Fire of 1870 affected my family and the communities in which they lived.

I joined the British Isles Family History Society of Great Ottawa (BIFHSGO) to learn more about doing genealogical research. There, I found many people whose interests were similar to mine. The big joke in family history circles is that the best part and the worst part of doing genealogy research is that it's never done. 

Grandfather Neilson's passport photo
Thinking about my own family history got me thinking about why so many people today are interested in doing family history. It has been estimated that family history research is the second largest (after gardening) and among the fastest-growing hobbies in the US  (Harmon 2007) and the fastest growing leisure-time pursuit in Canada (Wilson 2003)., which promotes itself as "the world's largest online resources for family history," now has in excess of 2.7 million subscribers, who have created over 55 million family trees, profiling more than 5 billion family members ( Their adjusted EBITDA for the second quarter of 2014 was $55.4 million US. That's a lot of people checking out what their ancestors were up to!

In 2011, in collaboration with Professor D.A. Muise from Carleton's history department, I conducted an online survey of genealogists. Over 2,700 people responded, almost 2,000 of which were from Canada. When we asked them why they started doing family history research, 22% said it was to learn about their family, their ancestors and themselves. A further 13% said it was because a family member influenced them. Most often, it was a parent who asked for their help or wanted to pass along the materials they had collected.The third most frequent response, given by 7.5% of Canadian respondents, was that they were 'just curious.' 

My grandfather's business card
So how does this relate to a course in consumer behaviour? Well, one of the topics we're going to study this year is the influence of other people on our consumer behaviour. Our family members are a major source of influence, and I think it's really interesting to observe that they continue to influence us even after they have passed away. 

Is there anyone in your family who is conducting research on your family tree? How much do you think your family members influence what you purchase or how you choose to 'spend' your time? 

Harmon, Amy (2007), “Stalking Strangers‟ DNA to Fill in the Family Tree,” The New York Times, April 2.

Wilson, Ian (2003), “First person, singular…first person, plural: making Canada‟s past accessible," Canadian Issues, October.