Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Guilt as a Powerful Cultural Motivator

Reducing guilt a bit at a time can be brand strategy. Here I first explore the origins and dynamics of guilt and then move to explore ways to apply this insight as a cultural positioning approach.

Feelings of guilt are internalized ways of reacting to one’s actions or inactions.  Developmental psychologists (for example Justin Aronfreed) have found that parents who raise their children by references to feelings about their children’s behavior or “induction” are more likely to have children who internalize guilt.  On the other hand, parents who raise children by asserting their power or “sensitization” are more likely to have kids who are concerned about avoiding external punishment.

The difference between kids who internalize guilt and those who are more concerned with external consequences is important.  In the first case these children develop what is commonly referred to as conscience regarding their behavior, while in the second case the kids are more oriented to whether they are going to be discovered or caught.

“Inductive” parents talk to their children about how they feel when the kids misbehave.  They use expressions like “you hurt me when you do that.”  “Sensitizing” or externally oriented parents are more likely to use physical force to guide behavior.

While these two types of parents exist in all cultures some are more prevalent in some cultures than in others.  Jewish mothers are well known for inducing guilt in their kids and use expressions like “you make me suffer with your actions.” Interestingly many Latin American cultures share that as a common orientation.  It may be because the mother in these cultures is so extremely revered that she has a very strong influence.  Hispanic kids are extremely careful not to offend or disappoint their mothers.  Latino mothers are also likely to talk to their children about how they feel about their behaviors.

Again, it is not that one culture is completely one way or another but that there are tendencies that are more prevalent in one or the other.  Let’s look at guilt learning and experience among Hispanics.

Anyone who has viewed a “Telenovela” or a Latin American “Soap Opera,” can clearly identify the suffering that mothers experience and the way they induce guilt in their children. The suffering mother is a constant theme.  “Telenovelas” are important tools of cultural learning for Latinos.  They remind viewers of their own experience but also reinforce guilt oriented behaviors.  

Anthropologists (for example Ruth Benedict) have also classified cultures as guilt or shame oriented.  Guilt oriented cultures tend to share more of the Judeo-Christian orientation towards internalizing a sense of feeling bad for transgressing while Eastern cultures tend to be more oriented towards a sense of shame for not conforming to the group.

When marketing to Latinos in the US, it is important to keep these cultural tendencies in mind.  For example:

Mothers coming to the US from Latin America are likely to feel that they do not do enough for their families and experience guilt.  Clearly there are products and services that can be positioned as guilt reducing elements in the lives of these consumers.

Insurance:  Reduce guilt by protecting the family as much as one can.

Preventive health care:  Reducing guilt by doing more to avoid illness.

Consumer products:  Reducing guilt by giving kids what parents could not afford before.

Technology:  Reducing guilt by re-establishing contact with loved ones.

This is one example of how cultural insights when properly understood can help communicate legitimate products and services in ways that are culturally compatible.  Cultural insights need to be studied by looking at cultural trends in the literature, and also need to be explored via qualitative research.

Qualitative research, when well done can uncover deep rooted common trends that can help a brand distinguish itself from a cultural point of view.  Qualitative research is frequently misunderstood as pro forma interviewing and that is not it.  In-depth qualitative research can dig up important trends that marketers and service providers can use to the benefit of consumers and of their services and brands.

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