Subcultures of Consumption: A better way to understand your customers?

“You can’t please everyone,” so the saying goes.

This encapsulates the rationale behind one of the most basic concepts in marketing strategy: segmentation and targeting.

Companies have limited resources and particular strengths and weaknesses, while consumers have multifarious wants and expectations. If you try to be all things to all people, you are likely to please no one. Companies that can offer a product that best suits the needs of their target market obtain a competitive advantage and are best placed to maximise profits, or so the theory goes.

The approach demands that consideration be given to how best to segment a market and identify a target customer. This is traditionally based on demographic, geographic, behavioural and attitudinal variables. They’re limitless, but they might include: location, age, political opinions, income, interests.

Changing approaches
With a concept of a target customer in mind, companies can adjust their offering to best meet their needs. For communications to be effective, this requires an understanding of the media that the consumer is exposed to.

It doesn’t take much scrutiny to see where this approach my fall down. It relies on arbitrary categories being reliable predictors of behaviour. This has further broken down with a rise in individualism in certain cultures. The relationships are even less useful when marketing to global audiences, and media and audience fragmentation has confounded the delivery of messages to target audiences.

Meanwhile, researchers and marketers have turned to new approaches to better understand consumers, such as generational and cultural influences, including membership of subcultures.

Subcultures of Consumption
Born out of the search for new and better ways to understand consumer behaviour, the term ‘Subcultures of Consumption’ was coined by J. W. Schouten in 1995 to describe subcultures that are best defined and understood by what they purchase and how, rather than other traditional segmentation variables.

In Schouten’s words: “Recognising that consumption activities, product categories, or even brands may serve as the basis for interaction and social cohesion, the concept of the subculture of consumption solves many problems inherent in the use of ascribed social categories as devices for understanding consumer behaviour.”

Examples that have been identified and studied include gamers, hipsters and even Harley-Davidson motorcycle owners.

What are the implications for PR and communications?

It’s about understanding the customer. Take, for instance, purveyors of microwavable burgers of debatable quality, Rustlers, who devised their ‘GameSafe’ campaign, encouraging UK gamers to take regular breaks, based on the knowledge that high-calorie food was treated purely as fuel for marathon gaming sessions that could last 24 hours, with reports of fatalities resulting from exhaustion.

Academic research into Subcultures of Consumption often involves ethnographic studies, where a researcher immerses his or herself within the culture that they are studying for days, weeks, months or years. These typically give rise to typologies of consumption behaviour.

In the ‘real world’, companies that have been operating in markets for years frequently understand their customers better than anyone else. The concept of Subcultures of Consumption simply provides another lens through which businesses and brands might better understand a target customer or discover ones they didn’t know they had.

Categories: Marketing