Macroforces And Changes In Global Consumer Culture: Mass Urbanization

Normal, crowded street in Bombay.

Normal, crowded street in Bombay. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a part of my day-to-day and that of the Chief Culture Officer at Northstar Research, we stay pretty keenly focused on the macroforces that are shaping the world and what that means for humans and consumer culture.
We always encourage our clients and our internal teams to ask three big questions:

“What’s going on out there?”

“Does it matter to us?”

“If so, what are we going to do about it?”

These are pretty basic questions but also pretty big questions.  And in order to really grasp the magnitude of the task it’s important to start with a solid foundation of understanding based on the big picture.

At Northstar, we have focused on 7 big-picture macroforces.   To start off, I would like to talk about one that has been a topic of interest among several of my clients lately:  Mass Urbanization

  • Today, half the world’s population (i.e. 3 billion) lives in urban areas.
  • Three million people move to cities in the developing world every week – mostly from subsistence farms (OECD 2010).
  • Global urban populations will grow by nearly 2 billion in the next 20 years, and by 2050, about 70% of the world’s population will be in cities in the developing world (Nielsen 2011).

So, what does that mean for consumer-focused brands?  Well, for starters it means taking a look at how your organization defines “urban”.  Chances are that conception is skewed by a fairly ethnocentric, western context.  What we view as the realities and lifestyle impact of urban living in the developed world is likely very different from the reality of urbanization as it is evolving, especially in emerging markets.

America and the developed world’s concept of “urban” is rooted in an ethnocentric perspective based on a very specific sociocultural trajectory

From our western point of view, we see Urban life as having a very distinct cultural context:
  • Melting Pot Cities:  a multi-ethnic collection of citizens from diverse backgrounds and geographies who are all both challenged and enriched by one another’s presence
  • Distinct racial divides between the haves and have-nots (in America specifically): in particular, urban “ghetto” culture is characterized by African American and Hispanic minorities
  • A more class-warfare driven concept of street culture and youth culture in particular:  e.g., Rap / Hip-Hop music, street art and graffiti, and celebration of athletic prowess  like Basketball as a “golden ticket” to upward mobility

Bit if you look at the more likely cultural realities of  the mass-migrants to urban areas from a more rural and disconnected upbringing in emerging markets, there is a distinct difference.  In particular, you see a stronger cultural tension between that geography’s deep culture and the culture that is more timely, topical and surface level

New urbanites in emerging markets are likely:

  • Carrying with them internalized “deep culture” from an upbringing steeped in centuries old traditions:  such as deeply held spiritual traditions and family centric values in Eastern cultures
  • Following an accelerated learning curve (compared to the historical trajectory experienced in the developed world)and urban acculturation path: due to the rapid spread of globalization / capitalism and augmented by the proliferation and adoption of communication technology.  People can see both the pros and cons of how capitalism and rapid growth has affected human culture for better or worse…and they are adjusting their consumer behavior according to that information and their assessment of their personal priorities
  •   Experiencing a far more homogeneous ethnic context than in the developed world:  like in India or Asia where most people in urban centers “look alike”  and come from regions with similar socio-political realities and far  more similar (although diverse)  spiritual and cultural traditions

So, that’s a peek at what is “going on out there” from a mass urbanization perspective.  And every company that markets a global brand…especially those with a perceived urban target, should answer in the affirmative to “does it matter to us?”

That being said, there are more macroforces to consider.  Stay tuned.  But if you are a stakeholder on a global brand to consider what the other macroforces mean and what you’re going to do about it…

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9 responses to “Macroforces And Changes In Global Consumer Culture: Mass Urbanization

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  8. Your post lost all its credibility when I reached the last line, which I found to be very ethnocentric: ‘like in India or Asia where most people in urban centers look alike and come from similar, if not identical, cultural backgrounds and traditions’. Nothing could be farther from the truth! A simple google search on India will tell you that there are over 100 languages spoken there, and the government recognizes over 200 distinct tribal groups. Just because they all look and sound the same to you does not mean that that is true. Ask ANYONE about India, or better yet, spend 5 minutes double checking before posting. If you wanted to make your point, it is best to stick to countries that are much more homogeneous (think Middle East, where there are significantly fewer minorities and much more homogeneity).

    • Thanks for the critical eye, echo. You are absolutely correct…i had worded that content incorrectly and I think the intention was missed. I have since edited it…let me know what you think. My point was that in urban centers in Asia and India you do have a far more homogeneous social context than you would in urban centers in the developed world and while residents come from diverse spiritual and cultural traditions, they are not unfamiliar or alien to one another: most people come from a geographic region not too far removed and from similar socio-political contexts. They have more in common based on awareness and experience with one another’s relative realities than the “salad bowl” of denizens in developed world urban centers: from different countries, language, spiritual, cultural and political contexts…not to mention a rainbow of biological differences. i am sure you will agree that the comparison is a meaningful one…. My apologies if my error in written expression offended you in any way.

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