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October 26, 2000 There are cultural limits to what we will buy


Photo of Michel Laroche

by Sigalit Hoffman

There are some products no amount of marketing will sell, such as trying to sell pork to Jews and Muslims.

That was the message of Marketing Professor Michel Laroche in his public lecture on October 31 as one of this year’s Concordia University Research Fellows.

Laroche warned that without cultural understanding, companies “can spend millions of dollars in advertising and not get anywhere.” Such products are referred to as being culturally resistant, and no amount of marketing will convince a consumer to buy them.

In a study on French-Canadians who moved to Toronto, Laroche found that although they consumed more convenience food, these people were still not buying frozen vegetables.

Laroche accounts for this phenomenon by explaining that the French-Canadians adapted to the English-Canadian lifestyle, but retained certain elements of their own culture, including their preference for fresh vegetables.

These results are consistent with Laroche’s conclusions about the impact of culture on consumption habits. He found that people who acculturate — that is, come into a new culture and acquire the host cultural traits — are more likely to consume the products the host culture has to offer. According to this model of acculturation, unlike the American model, the native culture is not necessarily replaced by the host culture.

“What he said is true,” said Concordia Intensive English student Dewi Widjojo. A native of Indonesia, Widjojo finds herself eating a lot more pizza that she did at home, citing its convenience, low cost, and the influence of her new surroundings.

However, Jimmy Okello, a second-year Diploma in Administration student from Uganda, did not see his consumption habits change. “If one’s mental state is set in a certain way, it’s hard for that person to change. I find myself still eating the same basic foods I ate in Uganda.”

Many companies are well aware of this phenomenon. Jordan Lebel, a professor of Marketing at Concordia, said that companies modify their products according to regional preferences. The frozen yoghurt chain TCBY alters its recipe to fit the tastes of its consumers.

“More and more are trying to act locally,” Lebel said. “It’s a variable companies have to start paying attention to.”

Laroche cited the catastrophic outcome of the Campbell’s soup company’s attempt to sell canned soup in South America. Laroche describes the attempt as “an utter failure,” since canned soup went against South American culture. Through research, Laroche believes that companies can avoid entering unreceptive markets: “If you know a product is going to bring a lot of resistance, then go to another market.”

Laroche is a member of the Royal Society of Canada, and has won many awards for his work. One of the first Canadian researchers to study the effect of culture on consumption, he set the foundation of academic market research by devising scales to measure the degree of acculturation and ethnic identification in individuals of a variety of ethnic origins.

He found a consistent relationship between the two variables, with acculturation associated with a loss of ethnic identification. Laroche’s research will help companies know when to hold, know when to fold, and most important, when to walk away.