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Discovering the Cultural Creatives

Market research guru Paul Ray speaks out on how he found them and why you should care

After more than a decade of research, sociologist Paul Ray's groundbreaking 1996 study on American values identified a newly emerged societal group, one he called the Cultural Creatives.

The Cultural Creatives are a new breed -- a subculture that has gained a place among the two other major U.S. subcultures, the Traditionals and the Moderns. The heartland-values-bound Traditionals tend to believe in a nostalgic image of small towns and conservative churches. They are in perpetual conflict with the more materialist-consumerist Moderns, who tend to see the world through the same filters as Time magazine, Ray says.

In an exclusive interview with LOHAS Journal, Ray outlines how he came to discover the Cultural Creatives and what they mean for businesses looking to participate in the LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) marketplace.

LOHAS Journal: What got you into this business of identifying big changes in American life in the first place?

Paul Ray: Since my undergraduate days in anthropology at Yale, I've had one main interest: social change. But I'm also interested in the more practical issues of how to deal with the transformations society is going through. I've been doing applied social research since the mid-1960s and market research on values and lifestyles since the mid-1980s.

LJ: How did you discover the Cultural Creatives?

Ray: We spent two years sort of tinkering in the garage to get good predictors of consumer behavior. But after five years of smaller studies in many different consumer areas, it became clear that what we had was not the usual market segmentation scheme. We were always getting the same answers in terms of market segments, and it was a very stable result, replicated year after year. This wasn't just information about consumer psychology and demographics, it was about how American culture is changing. It was about values: what's most important in our lives, and how we live. Most of all, it was what really predicted best what consumers actually do.

The big question was, what accounted for it? Those dozens of surveys showed that values point us to culture, really different ways of life that are trying to be whole and complete. We saw there are three competing ways of life, each with its own values, lifestyles and views of how the world works: Traditionals, Moderns, and this new third group that really didn't believe in what the others did and was going off in its own direction. That was the big "Aha!" I suppose I was able to see it because I came out of sociology and anthropology, not from only a market research background.

LJ: How did you come up with the term Cultural Creatives?

Ray: It took a long time. We tried Inner-directed, Green, Person- centered, and a whole lot more terms that felt like they were about opinions. But they didn't capture what we saw. Then I saw the way they are innovating in American life: These are the people who are being very creative culturally -- not technologically like the Internet, but with new kinds of businesses, new movements, new ways of life, new ways of seeing the world.

LJ: You say in your February 1997 American Demographics article on Cultural Creatives that this is a more powerful way of analyzing markets than using just demographic groups. Explain, please.

Ray: Values and lifestyles tell why they buy, how a new product already fits into the lifestyle they've got, and show the symbols and meanings you can sell from. Demographics don't tell why people buy, just whether they can afford it, or maybe their stage of the life cycle, when they need some things. Well, most people can afford most things, so it's not enough. The CCs' demographics are pretty much the same as the larger American population. They're just above average on education and have age, income and race profiles that match the country as a whole. They're not demographically different, except that a lot of them are women.

So if LOHAS business marketers pick people by their demographics, they won't see the CCs and will be wondering why their ad campaigns don't work. Two consumers can have identical demographics and have totally different cultures and buying patterns. They can have identical cultures and ways of life, and different demographics. Neither demographics nor psychographics show you this consumer. What really delivers is culture, values and lifestyles. To be a player in the LOHAS market, you must understand your customers' values and lifestyles.

LJ: Does the Cultural Creative fade with the end of the baby boom generation, or is there evidence that succeeding generations will come to hold similar values? In other words, is the Cultural Creative subculture sustainable?

Ray: CCs are steadily growing in numbers. In the '60s there were too few to measure with surveys. By 1995 it was 23.6 percent of the U.S. population, and in 1999 it was more than 26 percent. The Traditional subculture's children are being recruited into the Moderns subculture, and Moderns are being recruited into the Cultural Creatives. Traditional heartlanders have declined from half of the U.S. population at the end of World War II to under 30 percent of the population now. The flow in and out of the Moderns has been about equal. They are losing at the same rate as they are gaining. It's the CCs population that's growing.

LJ: Where did the Cultural Creatives subculture come from?

Ray: What we discovered about CCs is that they have been involved in or cared intensely about three to six social movements: very strong environmentalism, the condition of the whole planet, civil rights, peace, social justice, new spiritualities, organic food, holistic health and the like. Not all of them carried placards, but they read about those who did and gave them money. About half also are doing personal growth, following a spiritual path. These Cultural Creatives account for a high proportion of the people using alternative healthcare and every other LOHAS product and service. On all these things they're twice as likely to see these as very important as any of the rest of the population.

In addition, a lot of them are psychologically very good at making up their own big picture, putting together their own synthesis from very diverse sources of information. They pay attention to what's going on in the world as a whole -- big environmental issues and so on. They compare and contrast and have very good BS detectors.

This is very important for marketers. Advertising and marketing strategies that work for conventional markets often don't work for CCs. They hate what they see on TV and are readers and radio listeners. In focus groups they tear TV ads and news spots apart for lack of logic and consistency. Moderns, on the other hand, are just fine with the eye candy on TV. The stock-in-trade of conventional advertising agencies leaves CCs cold, or ticks them off.

LJ: You note that there are two subgroups within the Cultural Creatives: the Core subgroup and the Greens. How do they differ, and what does it mean to LOHAS marketers?

Ray: Think of it as stair steps. All Cultural Creatives have Green values, meaning they all are committed to sustaining the planet. The Core Cultural Creatives are the ones who subscribe to the whole package -- environmental responsibility and the spiritual and personal development path -- and they are much stronger in their orientation. They really are the core of the market. They are more likely to buy and more likely to pick up early on a product or service. Green CCs are opinion followers rather than opinion leaders. Core CCs, however, have the extra spending power and are more likely to make the decision to spend on something new and influence the rest to follow.

Our 1996 study showed that Cultural Creatives were equally divided among the Cores and the Greens. Core CCs may be growing a little faster than the Greens, but it's not a big enough shift to be sure of.

LJ: Do you think individual Cultural Creatives are comfortable being labeled as such? Should companies marketing their goods and services to this subculture use this term when they talk to their customers?

Ray: Good point: If they see it as a stick-on label, they'll hate it. They hate being labeled even more than most Americans. Marketers need to be very careful about how they use that term -- and also stay away from the New Age stereotype. CCs are not New Agers.

LJ: You note that Cultural Creatives are technology moderates. What about the Internet? Have CCs embraced it as an information tool? As a mode of conducting commerce? Both?

Ray: They appear to have gotten strongly into it in the last two years. The software is a lot more people-friendly now. In focus groups done in the last few months we saw that CCs tend to use the Net a little differently. Their focus is on searching for specific information -- to get it and get off. Few are surfers, and they hate chat rooms. But they'll go to specific sites that friends have suggested or that sound good to their values.

Right now most e-commerce sites are designed by nerdy Moderns in the style that other nerdy Moderns appreciate. But they sure don't speak to CCs!

LJ: Are there business-to-business synergies to be created among the various businesses in the LOHAS market segments?

Ray: Players in the LOHAS marketplace should start sharing insights as to what really works in terms of getting to their customers. For pure business-to- business sales, no consumer generalizations work particularly well. But my experience is that in a typical company a good 30 percent of managers are Cultural Creatives. Yet, most think they are alone, because talking about values "just isn't done." So they don't discover they've got lots of allies. What I've found is that when I talk about CCs to middle managers they'll say, 'Oh, that's great, that gives me bottom-line reasons for doing what I want to do.' When they find allies in the company, they can brainstorm on what works, and they can try networking with CC managers in other companies as well.

LJ: How should LOHAS marketers think about building up this market?

Ray: We've got to outgrow the Modernist business paradigm. The use of direct mail, for example, is usually a flop in reaching CCs. Businesses that do direct marketing must talk to businesses that have done it successfully with CCs and find out what works. Once LOHAS businesses grasp that there's a market this big for their services, they can move to economies of scale that will drive prices down. Then they can do market building.

The first question to look at is: Are my sales forces driving away my customers? CCs actively want good relationships with people they buy things from. Relationship marketing that isn't condescending and manipulative works really well. And building relationships to hold customers is always cheaper than conquest selling.

Reprinted with permission from the March/April 2000 issue of the Natural Business LOHAS Journal, published by Natural Business Communications. All rights reserved. For more information, contact 303.442.8983. info@LOHASJournal.com, http://www.LOHASJournal.com.

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