Cross-Cultural Cool: Consumer Implications of Urban Identification in the U.S. and Hong Kong

THE PROBLEM

Anti-American sentiment is a frequent barrier in establishing brands abroad. As has been shown in previous research, feelings of animosity towards a country can reduce a consumer’s likelihood of purchasing products from that country, regardless of the quality of the product. However, there is a way to potentially mitigate this problem. Namely, evidence indicates that identification with subcultures within a foreign culture can serve to reduce feelings of animosity towards the greater culture and its brands. Subsequently, this increases the likelihood of purchasing the foreign country’s brands.

GICR Academic Director, Marlene Morris Towns, explores one subculture in U.S. and Hong Kong populations, “urban identifiers”. Towns examines the similarities of urban identification across cultures and its effects on sources of consumer information, sources of influence, and attitudes toward the U.S. and American products. Towns did this in four steps: 1. Introduce and test a scale measure of urban identification within a U.S. population, 2. Test the urban identification scale on a non-U.S. population (namely, Chinese consumers in Hong Kong) and compare the construct dimensions between cultures, 3. Test for similar patterns of effects on consumer sources of information and influence, and 4. Test for differences, within a Hong Kong population, between urban identifiers and non-urban identifiers in animosity toward the U.S. and willingness to purchase U.S. brands.

FINDINGS

After defining the construct, soliciting expert generation of items, judging content validity, and testing convergent and construct validity, a 10-item scale was developed that allows for the categorization of urban vs. non-urban participants. The scale incorporates behavioral and lifestyle variables as well as social, style, and attitude variables. The urban identification scale yielded the same underlying constructs when tested on the Hong Kong Chinese population as when tested in the U.S. population, confirming its general application.

Next, Towns explored consumers’ sources of information and their influence on both urban identifiers and non-urban identifiers. The results indicate that urban identifiers are significantly more likely to get information about new products from non-traditional/entertainment related sources. Furthermore, urban identifiers are also more influenced than non-Urban identifiers by non-traditional/entertainment sources. There was no significant difference between the groups in their use of more traditional sources such as magazines, news, books, riends, parents, or ads as sources of information. These results are consistent for both the U.S. and Hong Kong populations.

Urban identification is also related to the motivation behind consumer decision making; it is significantly correlated with measures of materialism. For instance, urban identifiers are more likely to indicate that they buy a particular brand because it “represents my status.”

In line with Towns’ predictions, as well as results from previous research, Towns found that higher levels of animosity towards the U.S. is associated with greater unwillingness to buy U.S. products. However, urban identifiers are less likely to report animosity toward the U.S. and trends in the data suggested that urban identification may be related to increased willingness to purchase U.S. products.

IMPLICATIONS & CONCLUSIONS

The results of this study demonstrate that subcultural groups exist that transcend geographic
boundaries, ethnic, and demographic backgrounds. This finding is important because it suggests that the opportunity exists to identify and successfully market to particular subcultures, such as urban identifiers, across cultures. Moreover, Towns’ study supports and advances previous research indicating that animosity towards other countries reduces a consumers’ likelihood of purchasing a product from that country, but that identification with certain cross-cultural subgroups may help alleviate this problem.

While Towns’ research focuses specifically on developing a scale measure of urban identification and evaluating the potential effectiveness of marketing to the urban segment outside of the U.S., there are countless other cross-cultural subgroups that exist. Thus, marketers that are seeking to extend their brand presence internationally but fear the negative effects of potential animosity towards the U.S., should focus on lifestyle-based marketing communication strategies that identify and target cross-cultural sub-groups that consumers strongly identify with. This type of marketing may serve to increase profits and also make advances towards a more global, integrated marketplace in the future.

Marlene Morris Towns

Academic Director and Teaching Professor

Marlene Morris Towns is the academic director at the Georgetown Institute for Consumer Research, and a Teaching Professor at the Georgetown University McDonough School of Business.  She received a bachelor’s degree from the McIntire School of Commerce, University of Virginia with concentrations in marketing and management and began her career working in Andersen Consulting’s (now Accenture) New York-Metro Change Management Practice, serving clients such as AT&T, Pepsi Co., Marsh & McLennan and Bayway Oil Refinery.  Since earning her PhD in marketing from Duke University with a concentration in consumer behavior, Towns has been an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Georgetown University, an Assistant Professor of Clinical Marketing at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, and is currently a full-time teaching professor at Georgetown University.

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