RICE Keynoter Dr. Marcus Collins: ‘Consumption is a Cultural Act’

As the headlining keynote for the Retail Innovation Conference & Expo, author Dr. Marcus Collins will discuss the intersection of commerce and culture.

Dr. Marcus Collins, a marketing professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan who also has deep marketing strategy experience within the worlds of retail, tech and music, calls himself a cultural translator. That’s someone “who can see the world through lenses that are not their own, make meaning of the world through said lenses and then be able to communicate said meaning to people who are not from that community, that group, that constituency, so they can…see the construction of the world that is not native to them.”

Throughout his career, he has studied the influence of culture on self-expression and identity, and how these personal ties impact our behaviors. The result of his work and analysis is the best-selling book, For the Culture: The Power Behind What We Buy, What We Do, and Who We Want to Be, which argues that true cultural engagement is the most powerful vehicle for influencing consumer behavior.

During the Retail Innovation Conference & Expo, Collins plans to help executives explore the world of culture, but also “be very precise in how we talk about it and see…how it manifests in different categories,” he said. Ahead of his keynote for the event, which will take place June 4-6, 2024, at McCormick Place in Chicago, Collins sat down for an interview on the Retail Remix podcast to discuss how brands are leveraging cultural proximity, and how retailers can learn from the cultural impact of Beyoncé.

Below are key takeaways from the conversion.

Takeaway 1: Culture is often the missing link in marketing.

In the world of marketing, “segments,” “personas” and “profiles” are often used to foster a deeper understanding of current and potential customers. However, Collins believes that marketers often miss the culture link, which provides the deeper level of context and nuance that is required to better understand, reach and engage customers.

“We typically segment based on demographics, age, race, gender, household income, geography, even the language,” Collins said. “These characteristics, while they may be statistically accurate, certainly do not accurately describe who we are. However, our interests, our behaviors, our proclivities, our idiosyncratic practices — they are all byproducts of our cultural subscription. What we wear, what we like, what we listen to, what we eat…every aspect of daily living is governed by our cultural subscription.”

Takeaway 2: The best brands transcend categories

In his time working for Beyoncé, Collins witnessed her cultural impact and her ability to “transcend being a musical artist. She is an icon. And what is an icon? An icon is a representation of something,” he said. “She means more than her music. Her music is a reflection of who she is and it is a cultural production of the ideals and beliefs in which she signifies. When the BeyHive says, ‘I’m a part of the hive,’ they are saying, ‘I subscribe my identity to this because I believe and see the world the way she does.’”

Similarly, the best brands have successfully transcended their categories and become synonymous with consumers’ identities. For example, loyal Costco members love the brand so much they wear Kirkland gear to signal their identity.

“Consumption, at its core, is a cultural act,” Collins explained. “What we consume, how we style ourselves, how we adorn ourselves, what we drive, where we go, the institutions that we are a part of, the music that we ingest — they all become ways by which we peacock ourselves to the world, that we signal who we are to the world.”

Takeaway 3: Cultural proximity drives cultural relevance

For brands to authentically and effectively engage in culture, they have to get close to it. Collins calls this “cultural proximity,” which is based on “how close we are to understanding the conventions and expectations of a given group of people.”

Brand executives need to ask themselves:


  • Whose culture are we trying to get close to?
  • What are the cultural characteristics?
  • How do we become a part of it?

“That level of scrutiny or interrogation comes from sitting in a place of humility,” Collins said. “It’s not about what you can take, but what you can give. And we can only give good gifts if we understand.”

Collins pointed to Patagonia as a brand that has achieved cultural proximity, because “they know exactly who they are, and they have a very clear compass of how to show up in the world and to know who they’re for. They’re for people who see the world the way they do.”

Registration is now open for the 2024 Retail Innovation Conference & Expo. Get your ticket now to take advantage of Super Early Bird pass rates, which will go up on Feb. 23.

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