Buying behavior, a component of consumer behavior, involves how people, in their roles as individual, household, and organizational consumers, seek satisfaction of their needs and wants through product acquisition and use. The focus is also often on the motivating factors that drive consumers to buy a certain brand of product. It can thus be said that buying behavior concerns how and why consumers acquire products.
Marketers must understand the buying behavior of consumers if they wish to maximize the probability of long-term success. Unfortunately for marketers, understanding buying behavior is much more an art than an exact science. The resultant challenges for marketers can be great in culturally diverse nations. These challenges are compounded when doing business in multiple countries, each with its own norms of behavior, preferences, and way of doing things— not to mention its own unique set of often complex motivating factors—that drive buying behavior.
In recent years, marketing scholars and managers have realized that long-term success is predicated not on making one-time sales to as many customers as possible but rather on the building and maintenance of trust-based relationships with a select group of targeted customers. It is also understood that establishing and maintaining these relationships involves a complex chain of events. This chain of events begins with the marketer consistently meeting customer needs, wants, and expectations. This, in turn, leads to high levels of customer satisfaction.
High levels of satisfaction facilitate the development of customer loyalty—wherein consumers habitually acquire your brand as a result of the experience-based belief that your brand is superior to competitive offerings. Loyalty implies that customers trust you to consistently meet their needs, wants, and expectations—to the point where they do not even consider buying competitive brands. High levels of customer loyalty allow the marketer to build and maintain profitable relationships with customers.
However, building customer relationships is not as easy as suggested above. In order to successfully meet customer needs, wants, and expectations—the first step in the relationship building process—marketers must first understand the multitude of often complex, ambiguous, and even subconscious motivating factors that drive the buying behavior of their targeted customers. When doing business internationally, understanding these motivating factors is predicated first and foremost on understanding the cultural background of targeted customers. This requires that marketers determine which aspects of a given culture most significantly influence buying behavior. They then need to understand how these cultural factors are likely to impact buying behavior.
Although culture is impossible to adequately define in several sentences—even pages—it can be viewed as the collection of shared meanings, rituals, norms of behavior, traditions, and preferences of a given society or subset of its people. Culture surrounds us and impacts all that we do. This includes what we do as consumers—the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the places we shop, and why we prefer one brand of a given product type over others. The chances of marketing success are thus much higher when products are consistent with key cultural aspects of targeted consumers. When this consistency exists, consumers are motivated to at least consider buying your product. When it is not present, consumers may be motivated to avoid your product.
In the 1980s, it was hypothesized that the forthcoming global diffusion of products and consumption patterns characterizing Western “consumer culture” would necessarily lead to a homogenization of culture around the globe. There was, at that time, considerable debate over whether or not product adaptation would be necessary—based largely on the belief that marketers would be able to create standardized “global products” meeting the needs, wants, and expectations of all consumers worldwide. The homogeneous “global consumer culture” has not yet materialized and the “adaptation vs. standardization” debate has long since ended. Today, business scholars and managers understand that there are still cultural differences from country to country that significantly impact buying behavior. They also realize that this cultural heterogeneity necessitates some level of strategic adaptation.
Consider, in this regard, the United States and Mexico. The two nations are geographically proximate to one another and are also both intimately involved in the global economic system (as close partners by virtue of the North American Free Trade Agreement). Many U.S. marketers do business in Mexico and many Mexican businesses have large operations in the United States. Joint ventures between U.S. and Mexican firms abound. In addition, there has been cultural borrowing between the two countries—witness the popularity of salsa, tortillas, and other food products at least inspired by traditional Mexican food in the United States as well as the conspicuous presence of U.S. movies and fast food restaurants and other retailers in Mexico. In the U.S.-Mexico border region, cultural aspects of the two countries have essentially melded into a culture unique to the area.
However, lurking beneath the surface of these easily observable similarities are cultural differences that significantly impact buying behavior in the two nations. Take, for example, differences in values and time orientation. The United States is a highly materialistic and highly individualistic nation running on linear separable time. This means that U.S. citizens typically: (1) believe that it is appropriate—if not important in defining who and what one is—to accumulate possessions (particularly status goods), (2) define themselves and judge others on the basis of individual achievement, and (3) feel that time is an economic resource that is to be used efficiently and that, therefore, planning for future time expenditures is critical (with precise amounts of time set aside for certain activities, which are ordered in sequential fashion). U.S. consumers are, as a result, often highly motivated to acquire goods that allow them to display status to others and be more efficient and productive with their time.
Mexico is not a highly materialistic culture. It is also very collectivistic in nature. Further, Mexico, like many other Hispanic cultures, runs predominantly on what is known as circular or cyclic time. As a result, compared to their U.S. counterparts, Mexican consumers: (1) do not place as much importance on the possession, accumulation, and display of material goods, (2) are more likely to define themselves and judge others on the basis of how well one plays their role within a group (e.g., the family, the church, or a work group), and (3) see little reason to “hurry all the time” and be as efficient as possible with time. As a result, Mexican consumers are not nearly as motivated as U.S. consumers are to acquire, possess, and display status goods. Further, “saving time” is not the driving force behind product acquisition that it is in the United States.
Consider, within the context of U.S.-Mexico cultural heterogeneity, cellular telephone buying behavior. In the United States, it is estimated that around 85 percent of all people have a cell phone. This should not be surprising—cell phones hold vast potential to use time more efficiently and can be displayed as a status symbol. As one might expect, cell phone penetration rates in Mexico are considerably lower—approximately 66 percent. It can thus be said that cultural factors help drive U.S. consumers, more than their Mexican counterparts, to believe that they “need” a cell phone.
However, it is perhaps more important to understand that cell phones are bought for varying culture-based reasons in the United States and Mexico. As previously stated, primary motivating factors for cell phone acquisition in the United States include desires to “save time” and display status. In Mexico, key reasons for product acquisition include the fact that a relatively high percentage of Mexicans live in large, crowded metropolitan areas and, more importantly, the existence of the often large, extended/multigenerational family as the central organizing unit of highly collectivistic Mexican society. Cell phones are purchased in Mexico not so much to “save time” or display status as they are to organize family-centered activities among family members spread out across large urban landscapes. Smart international marketers understand that cross-cultural differences that impact buying behavior such as these need to be incorporated into marketing strategy.
- Samuel Craig and Susan Douglas, “Beyond National Culture: Implications of Cultural Dynamics for Consumer Research,” International Marketing Review (v.23/3, 2006);
- David Luna and Susan Forquer Gupta, “An Integrative Framework for Cross-Cultural Consumer Behavior,” International Marketing Review (v.18/1, 2001);
- Michael Solomon, Consumer Behavior: Buying, Having, and Being, 8th ed. (Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2009).
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