Global Convergence of Consumer Tastes – Fact or Fiction?

Saturday, 10 August 2013

There's a secret dream that every international marketer's heart harbours, whether it remains a distant dream for long or not is the question. The underlying thread that weaves through all the hype surrounding catchphrases like ‘glocalisation' is but the convergence of consumer preferences globally. And that's sort of the holy grail of international marketing!

TL;DR version : Global convergence of consumer preferences is a reality we're witnessing each day. This has profound implications for international marketers. Concerted strategic marketing efforts can shape & drive this convergence.

The global village

Holy Grail, eh? Just break it down for me, would you?

Global brands and standardization
The ‘Global Village' is no more a myth thanks to the rise of global capitalism, falling of barriers to international trade, increasing interconnectedness and a cross-fertilisation of ideas, which has been further fuelled by the convergence of media, income and technology. Today, we see a certain degree of homogenisation in the global consumption patterns as national borders and traditional cultural boundaries blur rapidly, leading to the identification of global segments. Yet, the idea itself isn't novel; Theodore Levitt in his landmark 1983 article had argued that this homogenisation of needs and wants was inevitable as the rational consumer would invariably prefer standardised products of high quality and low price. So when we see McDonald's prospering around the globe, western fashions becoming common in many eastern countries and cross border music channels like MTV becoming a rage everywhere, it's of little surprise to the international marketer. The evidence is for everyone to see mainly in the form of various marketing messages of omnipresent brand identities predominantly in the FMCG and technology sector. People around the globe are developing preferences for the same products, wearing the same type of clothing, watching the same TV programs, and playing the same digital games on their computers! And these consumer behaviour trends are being reinforced all the more by the print media, radio, TV and to an increasingly great extent, the Internet.

Then why do we still see so many differences across markets?

Cutomization of Global Brands
All said and done, the convergence isn't perfect and its foundations are regularly questioned in view of the substantial variance in consumer behaviour across nations. But with differences of per capita GNP progressively disappearing, culture has become a powerful variable to explain this trend, and which the Hofstede studies also corroborate. National culture, which is broadly the values, beliefs, norms and behavioural patterns of a national group, is subject to global culture's continual influence, which in turn is instrumental in reshaping an individual's personal culture. Even as these global cultural values get transmitted to the individual, he retains a set of core common values, which helps explain this partial heterogeneity in consumer behaviour. Still, the consumer tastes appear to be driven less and less by long-standing local and regional traditions, and more by perceived desirability of global brands. Simultaneously, there seems to be shift in values as well towards standardisation.

Sounds pretty cool, but is this thing for real?

Commodities of culture-association, like alcoholic beverages, etc. are harbingers of the degree of cultural convergence. Research shows an increasing health consciousness of the consumers as they switch to beverages containing less alcohol, also a switch from the local traditional drinks to beverages that are seen as more fashionable as well as healthful has been observed. Apart from such commodities, digital convergence too is being largely guided by consumer preference. Consumers globally have shown a preference for mobile telecommunication handset size similar to that of the current PDA or mobile while adopting a considerably larger display, thereby directing R&D to increasing the pixels per inch, while still maintaining the portability. But obviously, given some degree of heterogeneity in this trend, partial, rather than perfect, convergence is expected. But the good news is that research also shows that concerted strategic marketing efforts can affect consumer perceptions and actually alter consumer choices. This means that to be effective, the various marketing activities like standardising the product, identical brand names, uniform packaging, synchronised product introductions, similar advertising messages across markets in various countries, have to be integrated and coordinated well. Advertising should seek to portray products in idealised and desirable context, because globally consumers buy the products that they believe express their identities.

Alright, so what's the lesson for the international marketer?

The most global brand - Coca Cola
The global marketer should take heart from this fact that cultural traditions aren't impenetrable, and that consumer choices can be affected by intelligent strategic marketing, which is an interactive and evolutionary process. Tempting, though it may be to read the consumer psyche every day and regularly adjust your marketing model to it in consonance with local traditions, it is not sustainable in the long run from an international marketing perspective. The key is to identify homogenous global segments so that if at all any customisation is required, it is minimal. Standardised marketing strategies and products are actually the future drivers of cultural change and consumer convergence.

© Jayant Rana, 2013
Images courtesy: Foter / sebr / CC BY-NC-SA; heiwa4126 / CC BY; Express Monorail / CC BY-NC-ND; kateboydell / CC BY-NC


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