A Reflection on American Culture: How Values Impact Real Behavior

Understanding the pain points of any culture, as well as the actual values of its citizens and what issues matter the most to them, is a key starting point for formulating any marketing strategy (or business plan for that matter). To refer back to one of the very first blog posts I wrote entitled “Cultural Creatives and the LOHAS Movment,” because values are the single best predictor of real behavior, it is important to understand them.

When talking about cultural values, it is impossible to ignore the work that the Barrett Values Centre is doing out of London. According to the center, which measures the value systems of various nations and organizations, American values are currently out of whack when taking into account the blend of perceived, actual, and desired values.  (The more in line the perceived, actual, and desired values of a culture are with one another, the more stability there is within the system and overall alignment.) Below is a May 2012 updated presentation providing details on the personal, current, and desired values of a number of nations:

As you can see, this data provides a glimpse into what the current spectrum of values looks like across various nations and cultures and it’s a great resource to have on hand for marketers. For example, as of 2010 the top three actual cultural values in America included “bureaucracy,” “corruption” and “blame” while the top three desired cultural values included “accountability,” “economic growth” and “concern for future generations.” Because of this misalignment, we’re seeing the crumbling of old ways of doing business (bureaucratic, hierarchical systems) and the introduction of new megatrends such as Conscious Capitalism whereby sustainable, transparent and accountable businesses like Whole Foods, Zappos and Starbucks (among others) are achieving brand loyalty en masse while at the same time capturing impressive profits. In other words, aligning brands in general and marketing messages in particular with the perceived, actual, and desired values of a culture is one way to be in tune with the needs of a particular society which lends itself to not only being relevant, but at the same time being able to fulfill a greater market need.

A Reflection on American Culture

There are three really excellent articles I’ve come across recently that have not only stood out to me as remarkable examples of journalism, but that provide some insight into our current state of affairs from the standpoint of American culture which, when properly understood, has everything do with the big picture of marketing!

First, there came the New York Times piece entitled “The ‘Busy’ Trap” whereby author Tim Krieder discussed how the term “busy” is often improperly used, and asked the question, “what does it really mean to be busy anyway?”  The piece is a reflection on our culture in that we’re all always in a rush to get somewhere, without sometimes having ever even stopped to define what it is we’re seeking, where we are going, or how we’re going to get there. He writes:

If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”

Next there was an article I came across from The Atlantic entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” by Anne Marie Slaughter, which had over a million views in one week and 1,500+ comments. While eloquently versed, as I read the article I couldn’t help but think about what the author’s definition of “all” actually was. She seemed to know she wanted to be able to achieve a position of stature, have a rewarding career, make her mark on the world, and raise a family, but many of her goals to me sounded completely unrealistic … such as working at the White House from from 4 a.m. on Monday until 11 p.m. on Friday, taking a train home on the weekends to raise her boys, and trying to fit in time for travel, life in general, etc. To me, this article further drove home the points made in article #1, “The ‘Busy’ Trap.” (On a side note, there was perhaps an appropriately followed up story that appeared shortly thereafter entitled “The Having it All Debate Convinced to Stop Saying ‘Having it All’” where Slaughter stated, “perhaps the deeper reason this article has resonated so deeply and widely is … that ‘seeking out a more balanced life isn’t just a women’s issue, it’s a human issue.)

Finally, the third article I read (yet another New York Times piece) entitled “Friends of a Certain Age: Why is it Difficult to Make Friends After 30?” author Alex Williams focuses on the difficulty of forming lasting friendships after the age of 30. In this opinion piece, he talks about some of the issues facing the formation of both meaningful and lasting friendships, partly due to the fact that societal circumstances have changed our abilities to keep close friends, and writes:

As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added.

So in essence, do these popular and thought-provoking articles plainly suggest that we’re a culture of people who are too busy and  lacking the ability to make and keep friends at the expense of still not able to have it all?

Now it’s your turn: how have you noticed the values of a culture impacting the decisions being made by consumers within that particular culture? From the standpoint of marketing, what are some examples of ways we can better market products and services within our respective cultures to take advantage of these intangible truths?

2 comments

    • Hi Abraham: Can you be more specific about what you mean by “the above finding?” Are you referring to the results of the values assessment and what it says about America? Seth Godin talks about the fading industrial revolution a lot – here’s an article that may be of interest to you: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2011/09/the-forever-recession.html

      I should also state that these are complex issues. Values alone cannot explain some of the shifts we generally seeing take place in business … economics and politics of course are at work here too. But, I would argue that economics and politics are at the same time heavily shaped by our underlying societal values.

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