An Ethnographic Perspective On Managing Brands For The Emerging Middle Class

Middle class consumerism has been an emerging global force that has largely defined the world’s economic culture in the past century.  As recent as the past couple of decades, that growth has been particularly pronounced in countries like China and India and have reached as far as Mexico, Brazil and yes, even the  U.S.,  where all of these consumer cultures have experienced social and economic flux.

The discussion at hand concerns rules for managing global brands on a regional level where steadily rising economic means and ambitions directly intersect with centuries-old cultural and spiritual traditions. In spending a significant amount of time conducting anthropological fieldwork among emerging middle class consumers in several countries over the past few years, some patterns I have noticed have given me pause.

In particular, especially when it comes to youth culture, there seems to be an active push and pull between the desire to achieve economic status and social mobility and an engrained motivation to maintain close connections to cultural and spiritual roots.  I have seen this among MBA students in India who are in active transition between small town family life and the urgent ambition to compete in a daunting employment environment. I have observed it among the generation of “only children” in China who feel the burden of achieving economic success to meet future family care obligations and a deep nationalistic pride, but desire to find a middle ground where they want for nothing and can experience the best that global innovation has to offer.  This trend is also seen among first generation Mexican Americans who work hard to seize the educational and economic opportunities their immigrant parents toiled to achieve and as adults begin a retro-acculturation process to remind them of the rich, proud culture from whence their ancestors came.

I think that in the interest of embodying an  emerging identity of world-citizenship that values the unity of forward thinking progress and efficiency, some global brands lose out on the opportunity to integrate the strong cultural traditions of the past that have shaped the human culture of today.  It is important for the stewards of entities with a strong global presence to keep in mind the realities of geography and very personal connections to cultural roots that define their consumer’s existence.  Especially as competition for share of wallet gets more fierce, it is important to make sure your brand can empathize while adding functional value.  Brands are identity, and should remember the value of cultural nuance that create meaning for the individual

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