Business Research

Translating the Language of the Marketplace

by Barbara Elmore

A shopper dressed in casual clothes is writing a check to a store to cover the $400 in items she is purchasing. She is a frequent shopper at the store and has written checks there before. However, the cashier, a woman of a different race, tells the shopper that the store cannot accept her check and begins removing items from the shopping bag. The shopper first questions whether the check acceptance policy has changed, and then decides more drastic action is necessary. She pulls $500 in cash from her wallet to pay the bill and tells the cashier not to judge a book by its cover. Shoppers waiting in line cheer. The woman does not quit shopping at the store, but does tell people often what happened to her there.

The incident is one that could happen anywhere, and is only one example of a shopping hurdle in a multicultural world. Envision this store in another country, perhaps in Europe, Asia or Africa. Or envision a vast store that stretches across countries—even countries that have been closed to the rest of the world for centuries—and includes consumers of both genders, multiple religions and races, and all ages.

That’s the marketplace of today, and it’s one that both the shopper and the shop owner must navigate—the latter while avoiding stereotyping and cultural miscues. This worldwide market is the place professor Chris Pullig examines in a paper he co-authored with 11 other people titled “Consumer Empowerment in Multicultural Marketplaces: Navigating Multicultural Identities to Reduce Consumer Vulnerability.” The paper appears in an issue of the Journal of Research for Consumers and is only one of several the collaborators are working on.

What happens in the store mentioned above, or in any marketplace in which the customer feels a loss of power or cultural identity, is critically important to both the shopper and the business’ brand, Pullig said. Traditionally, the experience harms the shopper by reducing or removing her control and freedom of choice. But it also harms the brand by curtailing its exposure. “We want all consumers to go to the marketplace and have the full experience,” he said. “We want to make sure brand managers understand why this matters.”

Pullig, who chairs the department of Marketing, developed this area of research through his interest in branding and because of the rapidly changing marketplace. “Western economies have become more multicultural because of immigration, but even in the traditionally mono-cultural economies in the Middle East, China and Africa, there is an influx of Western brands and ideals,” he said.

These changes mean that consumers must learn to negotiate the marketplace to maintain their cultural identities, and that a business must make branding appeals, and other appeals, that are culturally based. However, these kinds of appeals can be complicated. A message that condescends or excludes groups, for example, may make consumers feel more vulnerable and result in an outcry, or even a boycott. Businesses might even find themselves on the wrong side of the law in some situations.

The solution, Pullig said, is for brands to be transparent. That means repeating the same message across the marketplace, which is different from what advertisers have traditionally tried.

“Brands used to segment a market geographically and on cultural or ethnic appeals,” he said. Advertisers knew where to advertise and how to tailor a message to a particular group. “Today, boundaries are more blurred, so that kind of advertising is difficult.” And because of social mediums like Facebook and Twitter, consumers freely share messages across markets.

Multicultural awareness in the marketplace was an issue discussed during the Transformative Consumer Research Conference that Baylor hosted in June 2011. The idea of the conference, which drew more than 100 scholars from 14 countries, was to examine issues of consumer welfare as well as how businesses can better connect with and respond to multicultural consumers.

“We sat for three days in a room, with 10 to 15 scholars in different areas looking at different subjects, from poverty to food issues and obesity,” Pullig said. “We hammered out the issues and examined what we could address.”

Pullig and the collaborators used a qualitative approach in their paper. The results include colorful vignettes from personal experiences that illustrate consumer vulnerabilities—including the one at the beginning of this article—and an examination of how each person or group dealt with a cultural issue. One example dealt with different dietary restrictions among Russian and Israeli Jews, and showed how the Russian group dealt with an Israeli ban on pork; another used a craft market in Uganda, at which a professor asked a colleague to help her negotiate cultural and language barriers to purchase gift items. The vignettes help demonstrate five different approaches that consumers took to overcome barriers: product innovation (thinking outside the box); voiced complaint (the example at the beginning of this story); reappraisal of the situation (recognizing that a perceived threat is not real); gaining market familiarity; and finding a social resource.

The 12 collaborators live in the United States, Europe, South Africa and Australia and are working together on several papers, Pullig said. To easily negotiate their own multicultural marketplace, they established a method.

“We came up with a system where different individuals drive different parts of the paper,” he said. “I would work on a certain section, and someone else would work on another section, and then we would work to meld these sections into one coherent article. We have burned up Skype. Historically, we don’t work this way, but technology, organization and effort helped us to be effective.”

Another paper the collaborators are working on, forthcoming in the Journal of Business Research, targets brand managers. Pullig said their work will go into textbooks and be taught in business schools.

“All the publicity that arises from the different papers that we’ve written, and publicity from the conference, does find its way to consumers and managers,” he said. “In that way, academic research reaches current and future business leaders.”

Chris Pullig
Baylor University