Where Has Culture Been Hiding?

[Big Ideas Series] Add culture back into market research through a measurable definition of common understandings and shared expectations.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of our Big Ideas series, a column highlighting the innovative thinking and thought leadership at IIeX events around the world. Oliver Sweet will be speaking at IIeX Europe (February 19-20 in Amsterdam). If you liked this article, you’ll LOVE IIeX EU. Click here to learn more.

People love culture.  Watching the latest and greatest films, reading the current Booker prize winner, or going to an inspiring art gallery are all activities which contribute to our aspirations of becoming a ‘culture vulture’. Culture is a manifestation of human intellectual achievement that provides a commentary on society – people want to watch, read and explore it, and it’s become an activity in its own right.

Finding out what makes France French, Spain Spanish or Denmark Danish is why we travel. Whether it’s partaking in the café culture of Paris, eating late at night in Madrid, or celebrating hygge in Copenhagen, we have an innate desire to occasionally dress ourselves in different cultural fabrics from our own. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to avoid, which demonstrates the strength of the role it plays in our lives, wherever we may be.

But for years, when market researchers go to work they switch off culture.  We begin market briefings with penetration statistics, household expenditure and demographics, but we rarely attempt to immerse our clients in the culture their product sits within. Variances in survey results are described as ‘market differences’, immediately diluting the distinctions, which are in fact the result of a complex web of cultural influences. Despite being such a natural phenomenon, cultural intelligence just hasn’t come naturally to market researchers.

I suspect market researchers are careful about only ‘measuring’ things they have a clear definition for, and, in doing so, they remove extraneous factors. But our lack of a definition means that the industry ignores culture and the challenges and opportunities it presents us with –  but that is not a solution. Instead, I propose a simple definition that market researchers can use to bring culture into the mainstream.

Culture is about:

  • COMMON UNDERSTANDING: ‘X happens.’ If we all understand a set of behaviours to be true, they become embedded as culture. For example, this might be queuing, drinking wine with lunch, saying ‘sorry’, taking the husband’s name in marriage … the list goes on.  Importantly, just knowing that we share these same principles means that they can be measured.  
  • SHARED EXPECTATIONS: ‘If X happens, then Y happens’.  Testing whether everyone understands what Y is means we can measure expectations. For example, shouting if someone pushes in, expecting to be given a drink when visiting a friend or attending a meeting, or removing your outdoor shoes when you enter someone’s home. Having shared expectations creates cultural rules.

Culture must be part of our briefings, and play a central role in our research. Our shared human behaviours and collective recognition of brands and symbols have all been created through complex cultural constructs that guide our thinking. I can only hope that by creating a usable definition of culture for the market research industry, it allows us to observe and comment on culture in the same way that we do, when we take a walk in the Moroccan Medina.

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One response to “Where Has Culture Been Hiding?

  1. so so so important … all too often we see research , learning and what are often mistakenly called insights that take no account of culture. The use of cheap, short “surveys” is typical of the poor research done with little reference to cultural factors. The inane “millennial” references as to covering a global group tied by date of birth is a classic example of not understanding or rather refusing to want to have to understand culture. we could rant all night …..

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Oliver Sweet

Oliver Sweet

Head Of Ethnography, Ipsos