… Everyone around me is a total stranger
Everyone avoids me like a cyclone ranger
That’s why I’m turning Japanese, I think I’m turning Japanese, I really think so
Turning Japanese, I think I’m turning Japanese, I really think so…
- Excerpt from the song, “Turning Japanese” by The Vapors, 1980
In the past, Orientalism and the idea of the Asian mystique played a major role in shaping Westerners’ interest in the East. Even in recent years, we still see reflections of cultural appropriation (though some argue that it is cultural appreciation) in pop culture, like in Avril Lavigne’s Hello Kitty, and in Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls. However, this propensity seems to be diminishing, and is instead being replaced by a more genuine yearning to learn about Asia, particularly among the younger generations. At the same time, as technology continues to compress the world virtually, a fascinating convergence in consumer behavior is occurring.
Exactly how and why is this happening? Let us first discuss the past dynamics of global soft power before examining the cross-cultural differences in consumer profiles. We can then move on to explore the manifestations of consumer convergence as well as its various implications in the social, cultural, and business contexts.
The Shift in Soft Power
Historically, Western countries have wielded the majority of soft power across the globe. Brands such as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Apple are part of the almost daily vernacular in most corners of the world, while European luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton, Rolex, and Mercedes Benz are so universally coveted that combating counterfeit products is unfortunately business as usual for them.
At the same time, Japanese brands have also performed well globally, starting with their burgeoning market power in the auto and electronics industries in the 80s and the 90s. Japan has also been successful at popularizing its national culture through means such as art, anime, and film — not to mention food. To this day, Hello Kitty continues to capture the hearts of girls and women around the world, while people from Los Angeles to London to Hong Kong line up to get a peek at the newest art installations by Yayoi Kusama. The latest Japanese sensation, of course, has been Marie Kondo’s method of how to “spark joy” by cleaning up the clutter in your life.
Why have Western countries and Japan consistently been the world’s soft powers? Is it because they have richer, more interesting cultures? Or is it because they provide more differentiated brands and products? Though it is impossible to summarize all of the potential reasons here, what we can say with certainty is that these countries have had stronger economies and deeper pockets with which to market their offerings more widely and effectively.
Recently, the tides have started to shift in a different direction, as there has been a noticeable rise of East Asian (besides Japanese) soft power in the world, particularly in the U.S. market. From the global obsession with K-beauty and K-pop to the rising affinity for Asian cuisine, this newfound Western interest in Asian culture is increasingly palpable (without even mentioning Ariana Grande’s infamous Japanese kanji tattoo).
That is not to say that Western soft power is fading or going away. However, the flow of cultural influence as well as brands and products has become, and will continue to be, multi-directional.
Traditional Consumer Archetypes: East vs. West
There is no denying that culture has an impact on individuals. It affects how people perceive and respond to situations, and shapes the collective values of a particular society. What’s more, it determines what is deemed important, what is considered good or bad, and thus how people tend to behave. However, no culture exists in a vacuum, and this proves to be especially true in today’s age of constant digital connectivity, as consumers are exposed to other cultures and have increasingly gained access to brands and products from around the globe.
Historically, East Asian consumers have been inclined to imitate and adopt Western styles and tastes, including those of the U.S. This trend certainly has not disappeared and will most likely continue due to aspirational as well as other related culturally driven reasons. In East Asian culture, self-improvement in the form of pursuing and acquiring new knowledge and information has always been highly valued. This cultural imperative is tied to the idea that being a morally good person in East Asia means being a “model social being” — one is always expected to better the self through studying and learning in order to contribute to society.
In a collectivistic society where interdependent relationships are emphasized and cherished, possessing new information that can be shared with others is critical. From this perspective, gathering knowledge and information is considered not only a means to an end, but also an end in and of itself. In fact, knowledge and information in East Asian cultures function as a type of social currency. Accordingly, acquiring new intel that they can then share with their peer groups is highly valued as it boosts their social standing.
Since East Asian consumers tend to value new information and knowledge, they are willing to cast a wide net and conduct product research at length. As a result, because of their more extensive and arduous search process, they also tend to be more selective and critical of what they buy compared to their American counterparts. At the same time, they are also open to making more adventurous, unique consumption choices. It is important to note here that although this inclination permeates across all East Asian cultures, variance between countries does exist. Generally speaking, the more economically advanced and mature the market is, the more product choices there are, and thus the more selective and critical the consumers typically are.
This ingrained propensity to be hard-to-satisfy consumers is most evident in Japan. Even in the eighteenth century, the Japanese market was stunningly sophisticated. In the Tokugawa era, food became an ardent topic of interest among the public, and as a result, foodies and food critics, as well as restaurant guides, were quickly established as staples of society. More generally, quality and product differentiation were determined as key factors of success in the Japanese market. Indeed, despite Western influence and the capacity to participate in industrial expansion, most Japanese producers decided to continue using their small-scale production techniques — while incorporating modern methods that made sense — that allowed them to produce higher quality, differentiated products. By the 1980s, Japan still boasted double and quadruple the number of shops and food stores per person, respectively, compared to Britain or the U.S., reflecting the Japanese preference for variety and quality over cheaper, standardized big-box retail items.
How does this East Asian tendency to covet new knowledge and information manifest itself in consumption behavior? Evidence from my empirical research studies suggests that East Asian consumers are unlikely to automatically keep purchasing the same brands because they reassess and reevaluate their choices as new options become available. In fact, they are likely to proactively seek brands and products that offer something new — something that will translate into valuable social currency. This proclivity for newness is universally reflected in the marketplace regardless of the product category or price point, as consumers regularly stand in line for hours to try a limited edition doughnut from Krispy Kreme, or to grab the latest season-limited bag from Gucci. On average, a staggering 1000 new SKUs are launched in convenience stores annually in Japan; of those, only a fraction survive to become permanent SKUs.
In stark contrast, before the ubiquity of the internet and social media, American consumers were not typically inclined to venture out of their comfort zone and conduct a proactive search for new brands or products. Unlike in East Asia, the notion of self-improvement in the West, particularly in the U.S., is not tied to the acquisition of information and knowledge. In effect, limited intrinsic value is typically placed in the process of researching and gathering new intel. Instead, what is valued in American culture is the notion of being one’s true self regardless of the context. In other words, consistency in behavior across time and context is highly regarded and respected, while changing one’s behaviors and opinions depending on the situation is seen as ingenuine and wishy-washy. From this perspective, it makes sense then that when it comes to making purchase decisions, American consumers are typically motivated to stay loyal to the brands that they have purchased in the past. Indeed, the American public’s intensely dichotomized stance — undying devotion on the one hand, and passionate hatred on the other — as it relates to brands such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi, McDonald’s and Burger King, political factions (Democrats and Republicans), and even climate change, is indicative of the cultural imperative to take a clear stance, and to be explicit and consistent in views and behaviors.
Given this cultural emphasis on self-consistency, scale automatically created an informational oligopoly that led to automatic consumer loyalty for major brands. If a business couldn’t afford to air a Super Bowl ad, buy an endcap to showcase its brands at Wal-Mart, or build a store on expensive real estate, it was virtually impossible to promote a new brand to consumers, let alone entice them to switch from their favorite brand. Consequently, establishing distribution and awareness were paramount to building a brand, yet the barriers to successfully making this happen were significant as it required access to significant resources.
The (Imperfect) Convergence of Consumers
The retail world has undergone a drastic shift in recent years, as traditional big-box retailers struggle to keep up with innovative, digital native start-ups that offer consumers something more unique and enticing. And as more and more of the retail experience continues to expand digitally due to technology and social media, a convergence in consumer behavior is occurring. Specifically, consumers across cultures are starting to employ more similar methods in how they make consumption decisions than they had previously, primarily because of the universal increase in ease of access to information online. Interestingly, the relatively recent convergence in consumer behavior between American and East Asian culture is accelerating because younger American consumers are behaving more like East Asian consumers, and not the way around.
The global proliferation of smartphones and the rise of social media have enabled businesses to more effectively target and reach consumers despite having limited resources. Even small start-ups can invest a minimal sum of money to promote their brands on social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. They can also easily set up online stores on ecommerce platforms such as Shopify and Squarespace.
As mentioned previously, the search cost to explore and discover new brands used to be prohibitively high for American consumers. Finding information on new brands was difficult and time consuming. As a result, consumers remained behaviorally loyal to the brands that they were familiar with. Today, consumers have constant access to information from all over the world. Gathering curated intel has become significantly easier, and in effect, consumers are willing to spend more time finding what they want without having to compromise. They are now able to relatively painlessly engage in a more holistic decision-making process that enables them to expand their options. In this way, their calculus has evolved — non-price attributes that remain consistent with their principles can play a more vital role in their purchase decisions.
As young consumers around the world become increasingly savvier — again, thanks to the internet and social media — it is no longer possible for companies to succeed solely due to sheer size and market power. In the U.S., consumer brand loyalty for the sake of brand loyalty is waning, as consumers are more effortlessly able to make informed and thoughtful purchase decisions. With the ease of access to information about new brands and products, they are less likely to keep buying the same brand over and over again just because they have in the past, or even simply because they like it. In fact, an increase in the number of choices and the amount of information also means that consumers become savvier and develop a more sophisticated taste.
Now, and in the future, consumers will increasingly expect brands to live up to their standards and expectations, and will be willing to go above and beyond — to pay a premium or to forgo express shipping and convenience — to get their hands on the brands that they love and support.
Social and Cultural Implications of Consumer Empowerment
Beyond their evolution into more sophisticated consumers, what deeper psychological impact has this convergence had on them? Specifically, what are the social and cultural implications of consumers being armed with access to more information? First of all, as a result of being constantly exposed to content regarding various cultures and trends, the feelings of unfamiliarity and uncertainty as it relates to “foreign” content has significantly diminished. An American consumer who previously did not know much about South Korea other than that the country is located somewhere in the Asia-Pacific region, now has more opportunities to encounter snippets of South Korean culture and its popular celebrities and brands. Similarly, a Chinese consumer can learn in real time about an upcoming American artist or brand that she may never have had the chance to be exposed to before. Social media platforms have essentially created a wide window into what was previously unfamiliar and unknown, significantly diminishing consumers’ fears of the foreign as their hearts and eyes are opened to the world. This boost in familiarity through information acquisition tends to translate into increased liking of and affinity for the previously unexplored culture and its various associations.
Though it is true that exposure to social media is often linked to certain negative outcomes such as feelings of increased isolation and narcissism, it arguably has also led to a more genuine interest in other cultures, as well as increased feelings of empathy for individuals and communities in other parts of the world. Indeed, consumers around the world, including in the U.S., are expressing more interest and concern about events happening outside of their countries. Not only do consumers care about the quality and safety of what they are buying, for instance, but they are also voicing serious questions about whether a manufacturer is properly addressing its social and environmental obligations. As damning exposés of labor conditions in overseas factories and of the devastating environmental consequences of certain business operations come to light, consumers are starting to proactively and selectively look for brands that are committed to sustainable business practices. Consumers feel empowered because they can collectively make a difference in a brand’s future through their voice on social media, and through the purchase decisions that they make.
Convergence Creates Opportunity
Though convergence between East Asian and American consumers is certainly happening, full convergence is highly implausible. The distinct and inherent cultural differences in how consumers perceive their relationships with brands — how they evaluate and associate with brands — are unlikely to change even when people are exposed to other cultures and their values. Put differently, what is inherently important to one’s sense of well-being and of being a “good person” will remain the same. East Asian consumers will continue to look for ways to increase the value of their social currency by looking for new brand and product experiences that they can share with others. Meanwhile, their American peers will seek out brands and products that they feel reflect their own values and principles. Therefore, businesses must be careful not to assume just because a certain brand or product is popular in both the U.S. and East Asia, that what is driving this popularity is necessarily the same across cultures. Though consumers may be converging in how they make consumption decisions, that does not mean that consumers’ preferences for certain aesthetics and styles will necessarily converge as well.
With that said, such consumer trends present ample opportunities for both Western and East Asian businesses. Synergies across international marketing initiatives are likely to increase as American consumers start to make decisions more like their East Asian counterparts. In particular, as brand choice complacency and somewhat automatic brand loyalty among American consumers diminish, brands that offer something unique and valuable will have a distinct advantage across cultures. Further, any decline in American consumers’ tendency to consistently choose the brands they have favored in the past significantly reduces the power of incumbent brands, and as a result, opens up the market for both domestic and foreign competitors. Of course, that does not necessarily mean that attracting consumers will be easier. If anything, since brand messages tend to reach a wider range of consumers worldwide through social media, they must be strategically and thoughtfully crafted to ensure that they are genuine and not offensive to any culture. Apparently, many businesses find this difficult to manage, as it seems like every day that a major global brand commits a cultural faux pas.
Thus, the crucial lesson to keep in mind is this: though consumers’ behaviors are indisputably converging in some ways, fundamental cultural differences will continue to exist, and ultimately influence how consumers make choices. Whether we are aware of it or not, culture is the lens that invariably colors our every experience and hence determines how we respond to the world. Let us hope that as more individuals get more meaningful exposure to other cultures, the Orientalist sentiments and cultural faux pas will swiftly become remnants of the past, and that songs like “Turning Japanese,” among others, will only see the light of day as something that is symbolic of the cultural insensitivities that used to be the norm.