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  • Writer's pictureWhitney Dunlap-Fowler

Part I: Understanding the Past to Inform a Better Way Forward

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

Using Cultural Context in Market Research to Ensure a More Informed Way Forward

Quantitative, qualitative or social listening methods are the often first lines of defense when it comes to clients solving for key business issues they are facing today. This is especially true as silicon valley and trends in big data have completely changed the way information is collected about consumers and consumer behavior.

While numbers can tell parts of a story, they can’t always tell the entire story, especially when it comes to understanding larger, more complex topics such as identity, emotion, and cultural nuances. To get to these more complex subjects, researchers often employ qualitative-deep-dive methods to speak further with consumers about who they are, their life stages, their hopes, fears, and ambitions in order to connect these feelings with a not-yet-discovered unmet need during their purchase and consideration journeys.

While this helps to paint a more complete picture of the consumer landscape, it doesn’t account for the larger forces that are often impacting consumers perceptions, attitudes and purchase behaviors because these influences are often invisible and undetectable. Understanding “WHAT” consumers purchases or engages with is often easy and straight forward. Tackling “WHY” they purchase is a bit more layered and requires an additional purview of cultural insights to help bring those invisible forces to life.

There are several ways to employ Cultural Insights to help brands gain the right amount of Cultural Intelligence to solve for larger questions. When the right cultural insights methods are utilized, marketers are able to create solutions for today, and also plan for how their category will likely be shaped in the near future.

This will be a multi-part series diving into the ways cultural insights can be used for branding needs.

Cultural Context Analysis- Never Forget the Past.

It is very common for a client of a well-established rand to admit that they are not sure why certain shifts are happening in their category. Often, clients look towards trends that are erupting in the marketplace and use those as examples for why their category is taking a hit.

The reality is, trends are often temporary symptoms of larger cultural shifts impacting the way we see the world, and ultimately how we see & interact with brands. It is important for marketers to always step back to see the bigger picture and one way we do that is by understanding the larger cultural context that is affecting their category, or main positioning/marketing idea.

What is cultural context setting?

I like to think of this as a history paper of sorts, but without the annoying pop-quiz or boring lectures. Whether we like it or not, we cannot move forward with smart thinking until we fully understand the significance of how our products, categories or positioning ideas came to be today. In this case, not only do we use this methodology to track how a certain service, product or idea has evolved and modernized with the times, but we also use it to understand how meanings of these things have changed and evolved as well.

By understanding what these topics, categories and products signify to consumers and, how those signified meanings have shifted over time, we are able to better understand what aspects are necessary to keep in order for a brand to correctly convey authenticity, and what aspects are necessary to avoid in order for a brand to ensure they are not activating marketing ideas and concepts that are already old, outdated and over-done.

Cultural Context Setting is, in short, a key foundational start for all research and branding projects. It not only serves as a way to inform the organization of shifts and changes that key stakeholders might not be aware of, but the output of this work can serve as a central, internal, informative review for the business to keep and update as leadership and brand teams change and evolve over time. This methodology also helps to guide a more well-informed research strategy. By employing this methodology first, strategists are able to save valuable time and dollars by 1) not having consumers answer questions that are already known, and by 2) not putting the weight of what needs to be found out on the shoulders of everyday consumers who are often oblivious to unconscious influences on their purchase behaviors and less in-tuned with the future of a space or category. Finally, cultural context setting can serve as the key foundation for a strategic framework that can be built upon overtime and enriched with consumer verbatims and inputs.

Whether it’s about demonstrating the difference between European luxury and North American Luxury (and therefore highlighting the history of the space and how it evolved in each market) , or simply telling a story about how meanings surrounding masculinity or identity have evolved overtime, and why, cultural context setting is often an overlooked vital step to many research initiatives.

Key questions this methodology can answer:

Consumer analysis: What are the larger cultural shifts impacting my current and prospective audience?

  • How are these shifts impacting how they interact with brands as a whole

  • How are these shifts impacting how they interact with my product category

  • How are these shifts informing their purchase decisions

  • What does this mean for the future of my brand?

Category analysis: How has my category evolved overtime?

  • How & why did the category start and are those reasons still valid today

  • What are the new ways my category is being impacted today and which cultural shifts have caused these new factors to evolve ?

  • How does my category show up in other countries?

  • In which markets is my brand/category relatively new or old and how do the meanings attached to it show up differently in them?


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