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Marketing is Downstream from Culture?

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By Dominic Carter

Politics is Downstream from Culture

Before he passed away in 2012 the controversial American right-wing alternative media figure Andrew Brietbart often repeated the mantra ‘politics is downstream from culture’. Many would agree that American politics and culture have become even more overtly intertwined since then. Arguably, the rise of a populist like Donald Trump, that no one at the time predicted, might have been easier to see coming had there been a savvier understanding of how American culture was developing around that time.

Culture and Marketing

But what about marketing? The idea that changes in culture can predict consumer trends is one that has become increasingly recognised among marketing professionals in the last decade. Certainly, it appears to be common sense that analysis of the culture that consumers live in (especially at the emergent margins) offers us the ability to anticipate the likely changing needs of consumers, as well as the actions of marketers to address those.

If evolving consumer needs operate downstream from culture in a way that the consumer herself is not aware of then some would argue that there is little value in enlisting the man (or most likely woman) ‘in the streets’ opinions when planning innovation. In my experience this would be the entirely wrong conclusion (and warrants another article), but it certainly is true that all the answers to breakthrough creativity do not lie in the heads of consumers, no matter how evolved our market research approaches may be.

Japan’s Changing Cultural Landscape

Recently in Japan, I feel we have seen a direct example of a cultural trend extend itself into the world of marketing. The cultural change element at the fore is a growing desire for transparency within the government, as well as within major corporations. Consumers are intensely wary of the future and the leadership that will take them there. This is leading to a focus on issues and practices that have hitherto, while they have not been supported, no longer seem as acceptable or normal as they once were.

Emergent desire for transparency in government 

For example, there is a long-established institutional practice known as ‘amakudari’ which has been under scrutiny over the last several years. In an article on the subject in The Diplomat, amakudari is described as a “protected practice where senior Japanese bureaucrats are plucked from civil service and installed in cushy executive positions within the public or private sector.” As you might imagine, this practice has immersed the government in scandal after scandal amidst accusations of bid-rigging, falsifying records and drafting sketchy corporate deals.

According to The Japan Times, there is hardly a ministry within the government that is not impacted by the amakudari, making information regarding ties between government and major corporations muddy and highly challenging to ascertain.

The current working population is preparing to shoulder a huge financial burden for Japan’s rapidly aging population even as their own numbers shrink; many are asking in a more urgent fashion, what are they really paying for with their hard-earned tax yen?

Transparency and the Fukushima Problem

It’s been seven years since the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, nuclear disaster hit Fukushima and displaced over 57,000 people but public perception of the government’s handling of the disaster remains low, with mistrust still high. The judiciary has even ruled against the government in 2017—saying it was liable in the disaster for not using regulatory powers to “force nuclear power plants operator to take preventative measures.” The public perception is that force was not used because of the government’s fuzzy ties with the power company.

Seven years after the fact, the majority of Fukushima’s residents have returned to their hometown but living and working there remains an uphill fight for normalcy. After the meltdown, the community which was well-known for quality fish and produce, faced bans by 55 countries on their exports. While the government fights to lift these bans, the public perception that any foodstuffs from the Fukushima area are contaminated still circulate, despite food safety test results that show otherwise. 

As a nation, consumers aren’t rallying for sweeping food safety regulation reform –at least, not yet—but they want transparency from the entities that govern them to the companies that supply their goods and services. And they want to know what they’re ingesting is safe, healthy, and tasty.

Transparent Beverages in Japan

So, what can a company do in these uncertain times to gain trust from consumers? How should they respond to the emerging need for transparency? It seems companies within the beverage industry are taking matters to heart with a literal response. Or, perhaps even more interestingly, are their actions simply those of cultural participants carrying out their inevitable roles? SuntoryCoca-Cola, and Asahi have all introduced clear versions of their sodas, yogurt drinks, coffees, teas, and even beer to the market.

Transparency and Perception

With their purchase of transparent products are consumers unconsciously voting with their wallets to enact change? That’s difficult to pinpoint for certain. But it’s worthwhile to speculate about what these societal changes could mean for the brands we work for, and be ahead of the change where possible. Reading which way the stream is flowing in the culture has never been more important.

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