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Why study culture

Family sit-down dinnerSitting down to any holiday meal (much less an average dinner) can be a quintessential lesson in the power of culture and its influence on the food and beverage market. Who hasn't had the experience of dining with vegetarians, gung-ho meat eaters, self-diagnosed gluten avoiders or kids who eat nothing but mashed potatoes and gravy? We can find culture around a dinner table both in customary practices (where we sit, our choice of foods and beverages, how we serve and present foods and beverages) and also symbolically in our values and beliefs about food prohibitions, the perceived effects of food on the body and even family hierarchies.

Hartman Group social scientists and analysts have been studying culture for over twenty years. We find that culture is embodied in the mundane and the extraordinary; it is evident in many places, and yet it can be hard to pinpoint. At its roots, culture is not simply a collection of artifacts and rituals: culture encompasses the assumptions, meanings, ideals, goals, habits and ways of interpreting the world that a particular community shares. At its essence, culture is the context in which we live our lives; it is a force that determines behavior, constrains choice, shapes desire and defines need.

why study culture calloutWe often talk about "food culture" at The Hartman Group. Food culture can be defined as everything about foods and beverages beyond personal preferences. Food culture is driven by a significant cultural apparatus that includes everyone in the business of food including, but not limited to, chefs, media, manufacturers, producers, retailers, food service, institutions, healthcare, government and, most importantly, the consumer.

Through an ethnographic lens, it’s possible to observe how consumers craft unique identities through consumption. This has led us to observe that foods and beverages are bought for reasons far beyond just simple sustenance. Viewed culturally, food and beverage purchases can signal:

  • Who we are
  • Who we want to be
  • How we want others to see us
  • How we see the world

Why does cultural analysis matter?

Understanding linkages between consumption and personhood provides a powerful context for the marketing, selling and designing of products. Ethnography enables us to explore culture by studying people in their natural settings in the context of everyday life through participation in daily routines. Cultural observation builds intimacy, familiarity and rapport in order to surface hidden beliefs, discover what matters most (and why) and expose contradictions. Because of the speed of change today within culture, it’s more important than ever before to think a little more like a social scientist. Many factors that link to culture are influencing radical changes in the food and beverage industry, especially when compared to two generations ago. These factors include:

Changing societal roles: Two generations ago, it was typically the female head of household who was responsible for cooking and shopping. Today, domestic roles and responsibilities have changed, and we are actually doing less cooking inside the home.

Traditional food culture vs. modern food culture: Traditional food culture was generally about serving basic needs and providing safe and consistent food. Today, consumers are delinking from tradition, and the focus is on fresh with a general movement away from products they believe are manipulated. Food culture is shifting our collective tastes from bland, iconic and familiar to fresh, bold and global. Similarly, cooking used to be a chore, but today it’s a choice.

Traditional vs modern food culture
Consumers are fully engaged with food: In the past, it used to be only cooks who were engaged. Today, consumers want to be involved in the design process, and they can decide how involved and engaged they want to be with their food.

Understanding culture and increasing your cultural wisdom can transform your business and improve the lives of consumers. When observed carefully, food culture can be the basis of food trends and serve as hunting grounds for new opportunities. Thinking more like an anthropologist can help to:

Create the most relevant products, tailored to highly specified consumer targets by…

  • Understanding when and why values get linked to specific purchase decisions
  • Honing in on the problems and desires consumers are most likely to act on

Position products in ways that respond to what consumers desire most by…

  • Accessing elusive phenomena in intimate settings
  • Gaining insight into unspoken rules and rituals

Plan for the future by understanding how culture evolves by…

  • Moving beyond the overt to grasp the latent and subtle drivers influencing behavior
  • Dismantling unexamined assumptions and push beyond consumers’ “stock narratives”

Cultural literacy is more important today than ever before, since consumers are highly food literate themselves and therefore have higher expectations of food companies. Increasingly, they want information available, accessible, transparent and customized – the trick lies in how to determine what that means and deliver it on culturally relevant terms.


As an example of how cultural observation can help determine different levels of intensity in terms of participation in food culture, check out our “The Authentic Foodie vs. The Everyday Foodie” infographic (click on the image to see full infographic):

Foodie as defined by food culture


Food & Beverage Occasions Consumer Package Goods Culture Health & Wellness Retail/Shopper Insights Point Of View Foodservice/Restaurant


As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.


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