Brand Affinity, Culture, and a Pickup Truck

Brand affinity is the most enduring and valuable level of customer relationship and is based on the mutual belief that the customer and the company share common values. It breeds unshakable trust in the relationship the brand and the consumer share. It is at its strongest level when a customer believes that your brand champions the values they both share. Consumers who demonstrate affinity for a brand buy more, buy more often, and complain less than all other types of consumers. And the surest way to build brand affinity is to tap into the deep, culture truths your consumers hold. As an example, let’s talk about that most iconic of American driving, the pickup truck.

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The pickup truck has become an essential part of Western culture. Trucks are the symbolic embodiment of the hard-working American spirit. Even though trucks are needed and valued for their usefulness in farming, ranching and blue collar occupations, many, if not most, truck owners do precious little in the way of physical labor – spend a few hours driving through the pricier suburbs of Houston or Denver and it becomes abundantly clear that the truck is as much a cultural statement as it is a tool. According to a study conducted by Hedges & Company, truck owners spend a considerable amount of money on customizing their trucks, with 45 percent spending at least $1,000 and 17 percent spending at least $3,000 making alterations and refinements. The most common components customized are wheels and tires (36 percent), audio and video (29 percent), exterior trim (29 percent) and exhaust systems (19 percent). The high value that pickup truck owners place on their trucks and the amount of money that they spend in aftermarket products makes sense when you consider the fact that 64 percent consider their truck as an extension of their personalities.

Seems like a pretty straightforward discussion so far, but pause for a moment and try to picture the typical pickup owner. Visions of a guy in his 20s or 30s immediately come to mind. And while that’s clearly the target audience, it also represents a marketing plateau – there’s simply a cap on how many of these people exist. So where might other opportunities lie? What potential market is being overlooked. Well, let’s try women. When I was doing fieldwork with women who owned trucks, only one of the 30 participants owned a truck as a function of her occupation. Several used it as a means of establishing a sense of identity that said to the world, “I’m not a girlie girl.” Still more used it as a way of asserting a sense of strength on the highway. Some used it as a way of maintaining a connection with their past rural (or semi-rural) lives. The point is that the truck became an extension of themselves and utility played a minor role in the underlying reasons they chose it over a car or an SUV. And interestingly, the brands they chose most often were Toyota and Ford. They were seen as either more accepting of diversity because they weren’t part of the traditional American pickup market (Toyota) or because they harkened back to a simpler time (Ford). Dodge, on the other hand, was seen as embodying masculinity to the point of misogyny and Chevy, as one consumer put it, was “a truck for boys”. Toyota and Ford pickups fit easily into their cultural identity, Dodge and Chevy did not. The result is that the women who own Toyota and Ford pickups express extreme loyalty to the brands and say they are significantly more inclined to advocate for them. Considering the economic power of women, that’s a great place to be in.

So why does it matter? It matters because it speaks to the fact that the products we own and use, whether they are thought of by their manufacturers and retailers as utilitarian or extravagances, are reinterpreted and redefined by their owners and that is a huge opportunity for marketers. The truck is a fashion piece. It’s a toy. It is a way of stating you’re part of a tribe. And just as trucks have a range of unexpected meanings, so to do laptops, beer brands, eye glasses, etc. Regardless of your product or service, understanding the cultural elements of a brand gives build stronger connection to your consumers.

 

 

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Trucks, Women and Unexpected Markets

The pickup truck has become an essential part of Western culture.  Even though trucks are needed and valued for their usefulness in farming, ranching and blue collar occupations, decorative additions are often made to trucks and these additions don’t always follow utilitarian functions.  Indeed, many truck owners do precious little in the way of physical labor – spend a few hours driving through the pricier suburbs of Houston and it become quickly clear that the truck is as much a fashion statement as it is a tool.  Perhaps more so.  Rather, pickups help negotiate and present group membership, notions of masculinity and femininity, and associations with class structure.  However, trucks don’t always present a seamless image, nor are the images always interpreted monolithically by those who own and decorate pickup trucks. There are a range of meanings associated with trucks and subcultures within the larger cultural framework.  But what is most important to this discussion is that trucks are far more than they seem.

Truck owners spend a considerable amount of money on customizing their trucks, with 45 percent spending at least $1,000 and 17 percent spending at least $3,000. The most common components customized are wheels and tires (36 percent), audio and video (29 percent), exterior trim (29 percent) and exhaust systems (19 percent). The high value that pickup truck owners place on their trucks and the amount of money that they spend in aftermarket products makes sense when you consider the fact that 64 percent consider their truck as an extension of their personalities.

As an example, when I was doing fieldwork with women who owned trucks, only one of them owned a truck as a function of her occupation.  Some used it as a means of establishing a sense of identity that said to the world, “I’m not a girlie girl.” Some used it as a way of asserting a sense of strength on the highway.  Some used it as a way of maintaining a connection with their past rural (or semi-rural) lives.  The point is that the truck became a symbol, an extension of themselves and utility played a minor role in the underlying reasons they chose it over a car or an SUV.

So why does it matter? It matters because it speaks to the fact that the products we own and use, whether they are thought of by their manufacturers and retailers as utilitarian or extravagances, are reinterpreted and redefined by their owners and that is a huge opportunity for marketers and designers. The truck is a fashion piece. It is a mobile living room.  It is a toy.  It is many things, and those things become apparent from doing deep fieldwork, not through surveys and interviews.  And just as trucks have a range of unexpected meanings, so to do laptops, beer brands, eye glasses, etc.  Regardless of your product or service, understanding people on a deeper level gives you a significant advantage over your competitors. That means getting out there and doing the kind of rich, immersive research that uncovers real insights, not just the low-hanging fruit.

Gender and Shopping: The Hunter-Gatherer Myth

Hunter-gatherer societies are always a go-to topic of discussion when talking about gender and shopping. And there is some value in addressing it, considering for all our technology and complexity, we still have thousands of years of process in place that dictate, to some degree, how we navigate the world. In “simple societies” gathering edible plants, fungi, small game, etc. is traditionally done by women. In foraging societies, women return to the same patches that yield previous successful harvests, and usually stay close to home and use landmarks as guides. The process involves a great deal of evaluation of the locations used and the items gathered. Furthermore, foraging is a daily activity, often social and can include both young children and older members of the society, if necessary. Successful gathering requires that the person or people undertaking the process be very adept at choosing the right color, texture, and smell to ensure food safety and quality. They also must time harvests, and know when a certain depleted patch will regenerate and yield good harvest again. In other words, gathering requires a great deal of thought and the ability to evaluate the context in which the gathering takes place.

In modern terms, so the logic goes, women are much more engaged with the totality of the shopping process than are men. For example, they are more likely to know when a specific type of item will go on sale. Women will spend more time choosing the perfect gift, seeking out good deals and using shopping as a type of exploration in every sense of the word.

Men on the other hand, often have a specific item in mind when shopping and want to get in, get it, and get out. It is about targeted expediency. With men, so the logic goes, it was critical to make a kill, get meat home as quickly as possible, and limit the number of hunters injured in the process.  And taking young children isn’t safe in a hunt and would likely hinder progress.

To be sure, there is some sound reasoning in all of this and in some ways there are no doubt elements of truth to it.  However, in a postmodern age where gender roles are far more fluid and shopping has become an ever-increasing mode of establishing identity, it’s not so simple.

First of all, these behaviors aren’t genetically determined and don’t apply to everyone.  Yes, there are consistent broad themes that can help to illuminate how behaviors evolve, but the key word here is “evolve” which means change. And gender determinism is, unfortunately, where the hunter-gather model sometimes leads when discussing shopping.

Second, in hunter-gatherer societies, gender roles as applied to labor and acquisition of goods is much more of a life and death issue. It consumes what people do. But in a post-modern world, shopping is rarely about survival and indeed the survival aspects (e.g. buying food) take up a very small portion of our lives. Shopping is as much entertainment or social activity as it is procurement of goods. That means that regardless of gender, shopping is fulfilling social and cultural needs unrelated to actually finding a thing.

Third, there is a flaw in the reasoning of how hunting and gathering unfold because it assumes that the actual tasks take up the bulk of the time of the parties involved. More specifically, hunting is seen as a quiet, straightforward activity where men track beasts in a quiet, manly way, kill them and bring them home. The problem is that it just ain’t so. The fact is that hunting, particularly for large game is a slow process that sees little action. Like foraging, it requires extensive knowledge of the terrain, migration patterns, an ability to judge the health and activity of game, etc. Furthermore, while very young children are not able to join in the hunt, young men are expected to be a part of the process because it teaches them hunting skills and, just as importantly, serves as a way of teaching cultural norms of a society. And all of this assumes an activity involving a small band of men. In large scale hunting that involves large kills, such as running bison off a cliff, the entire society is involved in a coordinated effort. Gender roles still factor in, to be sure, but the difference between men and women as laid out in the traditional hunter-gather reasoning simply don’t hold up.

What all of this means to someone interested in gender differences in shopping is that applying a hunter-gatherer model is just too simple and leads to fallacies of logic that in turn lead to lost revenue (or at least untapped opportunities). The better question might be, how do women and men use space differently to achieve a sense of meaning and how does that influence shopping patterns? Or how does the product category type shape gender roles and shopping? Or how does shopping reflect and co-create notions of self-worth?  The point is that while the hunter-gather model is a neat, clean way of thinking about the role of gender in shopping, shopping simply isn’t neat and clean. It is complex and reflective of the changing dynamics of our culture. That isn’t necessarily the answer marketers want to hear, but it’s the truth. And if your goal is to sell more products, grow brand equity and increase market share, going down the simple but inaccurate path simply won’t get you there.

It’s Raining Men

There is an assumption out there that men have very little input when it comes to most household purchases. Yes, they step in when it’s time to buy a big-ticket item, particularly if it’s tied to stereotypically male products, such as cars and computers.  But the fact of the matter is that men are more involved than most surveys would lead us to believe.

Increasingly, married/partnered men are taking on the responsibilities of shopping, be it at the grocery or the home décor store. Gender roles are changing and with that change comes the change in decision making.  This isn’t just for the 3 in 10 single males, it’s for everyone, regardless of gender.  Cultural norms are changing and marketers need to break out of their traditional ways of looking at things and address a broader system of interaction, shopping and marketing.

Stop thinking about men as hunters and you will sell more merchandise. Keep thinking of them in this tired, old cliché and watch an overlooked opportunity pass you by.

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