Speak my language

Editor's note: Mel Prince is president of Prince Associates, a Darien, Conn., research firm.

Cosmopolitan consumers represent a vital and growing population for consumption of a wide range of products and services.1 While there has been an increasing stream of research about the nature of the cosmopolitan consumer, many marketers and researchers remain insufficiently knowledgeable, given the undeveloped state of the field. Those with research interests in the area need to know the essence of cosmopolitan values and expressive behaviors. They need to understand when and how products or services acquire cosmopolitan symbolism and the process by which brand recognition and loyalty develops in this consumer category.

Cosmopolitan consumers are especially receptive to brand communications that signal the advertiser is addressing a cosmopolitan audience. For example, technologically sophisticated and interactive communication media will attract and involve this audience. Cosmopolitan consumers see themselves as part of the larger world as much as they do part of particular groups. Thus, they use modern technology and communication regardless of their level of localized ethnic identity.2 As a case in point, one author found that social media technology was very helpful in branding Sweden to U.S. cosmopolitan consumers.3 It was concluded that branding that integrates a technologically sophisticated image is more likely to appeal to cosmopolitan consumers.

In the cosmopolitan consumer world, cosmopolitan corporate and brand imagery reflecting cosmopolitan sentiments leads to brand engagement. That is to say, the brand image has to project values associated with cosmopolitanism: openness to worldwide offerings, cultural diversity, social responsibility and sustainability, among others. Cosmopolitan consumers are more likely to identify with companies that demonstrate that they subscribe to those values and to remain loyal to them.4 To put it another way, cosmopolitan brand positioning and images must be congruent with cosmopolitan consumer self-images.

Cosmopolitans have eclectic consumption tastes and are innovative in their buying behavior. These same consumers are also influential as disseminators of product perceived quality and value to others in their social circles. Brands that are perceived as innovative and trendsetting appeal to these consumers. They also prefer brands that are well-recognized for their superior brand reputations and are reflective of core cosmopolitan consumer values.

Subject to rapid changes

The cosmopolitan consumer population is elusive and subject to rapid changes in tastes and experiences. Moreover, in some respects, this group of consumers is heterogeneous.5 Therefore it is important to develop varied and flexible approaches to studying this segment. The researcher who wishes to sample these consumers will need current data on demographics, psychographics and media involvement.

Cosmopolitans have higher-than-average levels of cultural capital. Cultural capital includes specialized knowledge and focused ways of seeing things which equip cosmopolitans with skills to understand and appreciate cultural otherness. The cultivation of cultural capital is a means of self-enhancement. Cultural capital is part of a complex that includes social location, symbolic competencies and personal motivations that shape cultural appreciation. The traditional meaning of cultural capital may change over time, extending to environmental awareness and sustainability principles, i.e., ethical consumer orientations.6

Cultural capital has been linked to social origin, education credentials and occupational status. There are several motivations associated with high levels of cultural capital.7 These include: affective intensity, intellectualism, connoisseurship, individualism, traditionalism, innovativeness, humanism, omnivorousness, cultural exclusionism and critical detachment.

Involvement with different product categories of special interest to cosmopolitan consumers requires different levels of skills, knowledge and resources that are reflective of cultural capital levels.8 There are traits that we may in general associate with cosmopolitan consumers. For example, cosmopolitan consumers have been identified as innovators and early adopters of cosmopolitan brands.9 When new products are salient to them, cosmopolitan consumers exhibit: intense customer involvement; intimate, long-term and affinity-driven brand relationships; and a strong brand loyalty bond.

Researchers need to search for latent needs of cosmopolitan consumers. These latent needs may be functional and self-centered or symbolic and interdependent. In any event, researchers should develop insights into eclectic consumption motives of cosmopolitan consumers. Universal touchpoints (i.e., common feelings and emotions) should be uncovered. Finally, we need to delineate cosmopolitan consumers’ media exposure patterns.

Exciting, authentic and innovative

What does this mean for understanding mechanisms by which brand images appeal to cosmopolitan consumers? Facets of cosmopolitan brand imagery are an impressive share of cosmopolitan customers, global presence and worldwide acceptance. Cosmopolitan brands are expected to be exciting, authentic and innovative. These characteristics appeal to cosmopolitan values of cultural openness and environmental consciousness. Additionally, brand imagery framed as cosmopolitan is instrumental in acquiring social capital, especially through brand communications. Finally, a cosmopolitan brand typically is perceived as exotic.

Which sorts of companies are most likely to be compatible with cosmopolitan values?

  • companies that offer global brands that are already positioned as cosmopolitan or that reflect cosmopolitan values and should be positioned in that way;
  • companies that plan international product availability;
  • companies that are active leaders in new product development;
  • companies that wish to capitalize on product life cycle issues;
  • companies that wish to project a cosmopolitan corporate image;
  • companies in cosmopolitan culture industries, e.g., smart phones, fashion, foods, lifestyle products.

Starbucks is a prime example of a company likely to benefit from increased knowledge of cosmopolitan consumers. The company has become a global phenomenon with worldwide locations. The ways in which it addresses the brand interface is an important aspect of its global presence. Starbucks has 5,500 coffee houses in over 55 countries. The operations philosophy transcends language and culture. International availability is built on global partnerships.

Important new cosmopolitan-responsive products recently developed by Starbucks are a new caramel flan latte and a fresh line of VIA ready-brew lattes available throughout stores in the U.S. and Canada. Also, it has introduced a new vanilla latte and cafe mocha latte. Operations worldwide profit from product life cycle management. Customer shares are studied from introduction over time, by country and by consumer values groups, e.g., health and well-being segments. Such analyses are of critical value for loyal user and growth stage planning.

Starbucks projects a cosmopolitan-valued image of social responsibility. Uppermost is Starbucks’ concern about the environment. It does not wish to be known for overloading landfills at the expense of the environment. Starbucks is squarely in a cosmopolitan culture industry and is primarily based on its urban style appearance. Cosmopolitan urbanism highlights the vibrancy of city life and its stream of cultural flows.

Cosmopolitan consumers are a unique yet diverse group of buyers. Their behavior differs by product category in special ways, different from other consumer types in their search for cultural capital benefits.10 They often gravitate toward cosmopolitan spaces or buying environments. Given experiences, creativity and self-reflexivity of cosmopolitan consumers and their diversity, it may be useful to have them engage in a new product development effort (as Starbucks has historically done with its My Starbucks Idea Web site). These innovative consumers act as co-creators in such circumstances.

Enhance the self-images

Global brands are those with the same brand name found in multiple countries and are typically supported by uniform efforts. On balance, these brands are scarcer and more expensive than local brands.11 The purchase of global brands is likely to enhance self-images of cosmopolitan consumers. Such purchases reflect favorably on impressions of being sophisticated and modern. Among cosmopolitans, global brands are positively related to brand equity and prestige. Furthermore, global brands are more credible, possessing greater positive brand associations. Global brands are infused with cultural capital properties, valued by cosmopolitans, since the use of such brands connotes eclectic and elite tastes in products.

Global brands emphasize creation and communication of global brand quality. Global brands are an acknowledged source of competitive brand strength owing to higher perceived status and prestige imagery. However, these attributes bear less weight than a quality brand image. Hence, status and prestige receive secondary emphasis as global brand benefits.

The attraction of cosmopolitans to global brands also applies to individual brands positioned as representative of a particular culture. Cosmopolitans may be may be attracted to a variety of brands from a particular country. Consumption of foreign brands is regarded as a culturally adventurous experience.12

Generate new insights

To generate new insights about cosmopolitan consumers, we conducted a survey of cosmopolitan consumer values held by U.S. cosmopolitan consumers. Cosmopolitanism was defined as a genuine, humanitarian appreciation for, desire to learn from, and ability to engage with, peoples of different cultures; in short, an affinity for cultural diversity and the proclivity to master it. Respondents to the survey consisted of a nationally-representative random sample of Americans aged 25+ years from a national online panel. The survey was based on a sample of 269 respondents and was conducted over a one-week period in July 2013. The survey data were analyzed by causal modeling of attitudes and values associated with cosmopolitanism. The results of the study – and its implications – are presented in this article.

Social characteristics of cosmopolitan consumer study respondents – gender, age, race and citizenship status – are presented in Table 1. Based on our research, we discuss some important considerations for addressing research opportunities involving cosmopolitan consumers.
What primarily influences cosmopolitan consumers? Our survey examined six factors associated with consumer cosmopolitanism that might be influential in marketplace consumption (see Table 2).

External orientationopen-mindedness. Cosmopolitan consumers are receptive to authentic experiences with other cultures. Brand associations with products representative of other peoples are positively received.

External orientation – international media exposure. Selective media use promotes a cosmopolitan consumer attitude and activates a global consciousness. Cosmopolitans make use of transnational media extending to broadcast, Internet and social communications. These media carry advertising and other persuasive communications for cosmopolitan brands. With the advent of newer communication technologies we can expect cosmopolitan consumers (a) to be early adopters and (b) vigilant for products that are congruent with their identities.

Media use may encourage a cosmopolitan attitude and activate a global consciousness. Cosmopolitans are likely to be reached by transnational media, such as broadcast, Internet and social media. Hence, such media are recommended for advertising cosmopolitan brands. It is also worth mentioning here that as new technologies are developed, companies with a cosmopolitan brand image will benefit by keeping updated about them and using them.

Materialism. Cosmopolitan consumers have materialistic tendencies. However, in this respect they do not differ from other consumers. Materialistic values alone may not lead to the consummation of purchases – unless the product also has perceived value.13

Cultural capital is associated with differences in consumer tastes. A study showed taste differences between high cultural capital cosmopolitans and low cultural capital consumers.14 Cosmopolitans, in comparison with others, express their aesthetic appreciation for interior décor, furniture, clothing and leisure. When high cultural capital cosmopolitans desired functional clothing, it was because the design was coupled with a distinct aesthetic appeal. Consumers with low cultural capital preferred durable and comfortable clothing. Tastefulness was not an issue of serious concern.

Consciousness of kind. Identity verification motivates cosmopolitan consumers. Self-validation of their creative identities is one such motive. Self-categorization with others who have similar sophisticated tastes and life-styles validates the cosmopolitan self-identity. Motivation is based on consciousness of kind – a sense of belongingness with similar others. Consciousness of kind lessens the effects of national culture differences between cosmopolitans. This facilitates formation of cosmopolitan brand communities. These communities are useful sources of information about this consumer group.

Global consumption orientation. Consumption signals consumer identities, expressed through shared tastes and lifestyles.15 These transcend local and ethnic identities. The cosmopolitan consumer’s identity is reinforced by the consumption of global brands. This being the case, researchers can use global brand consumption to locate cosmopolitan consumers for their studies.

Natural environment concern. Concern for social and environmental sustainability is a hallmark of cosmopolitan consumer behavior. A brand image of social responsibility is attractive to these consumers.

Cosmopolitan attitudes about socially responsible brands diffuse to the general consumer population. This is because cosmopolitan consumers are watchdogs for good environmental practices.

Does not readily translate

Materialistic values are dominant among cosmopolitan consumers. However, this association does not readily translate into buying behavior. Cosmopolitan consumers are not, by and large, attracted to brands simply because they satisfy materialistic values. Products positioned as luxury brands are not involving to cosmopolitan cosmopolitan consumers.

Rather, cosmopolitan consumers are attracted to global brands and tend to have an international orientation. Brands with a global positive reputation, advertised internationally, are especially appealing. An international communications campaign that makes use of updated technology will have a receptive audience among these consumers.

Cosmopolitan consumers are described by their open-mindedness and interests in other cultures. Therefore, innovation and novelty are important facets of brand images for cosmopolitans. An inclusive, diverse user image for a brand is especially appealing. Coupled with open-mindedness is the cosmopolitan consumer’s sense of social responsibility and interest in brands that engage in socially- and environmentally-responsible behavior. This implies the importance of a brand image that reflects these values. The brand image may be communicated by means of packaging, advertising campaigns and placement that focus on the company’s position as a leader in social responsibility.

The concept of cosmopolitan cultural capital further illuminates study findings. Selected consumer market-place insights include:

  • The cosmopolitan buyer’s opportunities for individual distinction through originality and authenticity are seized by acquiring a product offering.
  • Cosmopolitans search for special product meanings of value aside from those employed in mass distribution of the same products.
  • The cosmopolitan consumer’s exclusionary motive operates by referencing cosmopolitan lifestyles in association with the product.
  • There is a sense of eclecticism that product acquisition brings to the cosmopolitan consumer self-image.
  • Values of sophisticated taste and self-actualization appeal when they use cultural capital as their source.

Finally, it is worth noting that cosmopolitan consumers have a shared sense of identity despite their hetero-geneity. Branding that reaches out to these consumers as members of a community is likely to appeal to them.

Help close the knowledge gap

The information gleaned from our study and presented here should help close the knowledge gap referenced in the introduction and serve as a springboard for further investigation. There is still much to learn about cosmopolitans but their overall buying power, coupled with their potential as influencers of others in their circles, makes this lucrative group of consumers well worth the effort.


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