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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Triumph of American Pop Culture

Over the years, I have spent a lot of time monitoring and studying Consumer Behavior. Often described as the psychology of marketing it really is the convergence of nine different disciplines: Marketing, Advertising, New Product Development, Anthropology, Sociology, Branding, Economics, Psychology and American Pop Culture.

The last element, American Pop Culture, is very powerful but does not always get the attention and analysis that it deserves. This may be because it is a difficult concept to articulate but it absolutely permeates much of the Consumer Behavior in the US and also around the world.

Some define American Pop Culture as America “dumb-downed” or everything that is left after high culture (literature, the arts) is taken away. Others deem it to be everything that is superficial or consumerist in nature.

For me, it is more commercial culture meaning things mass-produced for mass consumption. Pop Culture ideas typically appeal to a broad mass of the population.

Over the last 50 years, American Pop Culture has traveled very well—foreigners in developed countries may complain about American influences but they love blue jeans, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, Hollywood movies, our musical tastes, Disney, our love affair with the automobile and increasingly, fast food.

As a young child, I remember people laughing at those who wore blue jeans. Only farmers did that. Then came the 60’s and the lifestyle revolution and now it seems that the whole world is bathed in denim. In emerging markets, American Pop Culture seems almost aspirational for many people.

In recent years, Americans have definitely lost their taste for Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). Sales have been flat at best in their 5000 US stores. But in China, they continue to roll up double-digit same store gains each year. A new KFC is said to open every day in Mainland China. Their mascot “Chicky’ is even better known that Ronald McDonald although the golden arches is now opening a new location every 3-4 days in China.

Coke and Pepsi have paper-thin margins in the US but their profit growth is explosive in Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. One of the most successful Initial Public Offerings this year has been Arcos Dorados (ARCO), which is the South American franchise stores of McDonalds (Arcos Dorados means “Golden Arches”). Other Pop Culture icons are catching on as well in the developing world. Those new to the middle class want the logos and the American identification that they signify be it the Nike Swoosh, the Polo Pony even the Marlboro man.

Critics say that Americans needs to start rebuilding their industrial base and fast. They certainly have a point. But American Pop Culture, though no longer potent in Western Europe and Japan, continues to tear up the track in emerging markets. We may look down on it but those brands are repatriating billions to our shores and will likely do so for a few more decades to come.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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