social contagion

The Abstract for My Doctoral Dissertation

Exploring Social Contagion Within A Tribe Called Hip Hop

Research Motivation

Social contagion of branded products within a defined and accessible culture of consumption is a marketer’s dream. Members who subscribe to these cultures of consumption — the tribe — collectively decide on consumption norms — which brands and products are ‘in’ and which are ‘out’ — based on the cultural characteristics of the cohort. The brands which are adopted by the culture of consumption become enriched with cultural meaning, which represent the styles and ideologies of its members (Hebdige, 1979; Kinsey, 1982; Schwendinger and Schwendinger, 1985), and elevates branded products from their utilitarian function to totem status (McCracken, 1986). The adoption of such branded products are shared and imitated within the tribe, which translates into collective, and often loyal, consumption. Furthermore, these consumption activities are known to diffuse beyond the tribe and, at times, become imitated by larger audiences (Fox, 1987; Klein, 1985) and marketed for mass consumption (Blair and Hatala, 1991; Schwendinger and Schwendinger, 1985). Yet, the occurrence of this phenomenon is thought to be serendipitous, and the process by which social contagion happens throughout these cultures of consumption are largely unknown.

Though defined by consumption activity, the ties that bind the members of a culture of consumption extend beyond their shared commitment to branded products. The tribal nature of these collectives are governed by “identifiable, hierarchical social structure; a unique ethos, or set of shared beliefs and values; and unique jargons, rituals, and modes of symbolic expression” (Schouten and McAlexander, 1995, pg 43), which are constructed by its members. In some cases, the influence of certain cultures of consumption have been known to extend beyond demographic segments (Pearson, 1987), racial and ethnic demarcations (Klein, 1985), social class rankings (Harris, 1985), and even national boarders (Stratton, 1985). No greater example of this can be seen than that of the hip hop culture of consumption, which has become a multi-billion dollar industry and influenced consumption activities across such areas as music, automotive, fashion, sport, marketing, and tech (Taylor and Taylor, 2004). Hip hop is a large, well-defined, valuable, and growing culture of consumption with a set of beliefs, norms, and artifacts which govern the behaviors of the tribe and the social structure thereof. The construction of these governing cultural characteristics are highly visible and accessible by social media and other marketing channels of communication. What makes this potential even more staggering is that social contagion takes place among this culture of consumption not rarely but routinely, as seen in the adoption of Beat By Dre headphones, Adidas’ Yezzy sneakers, and Tommy Hilfiger clothing.

Research Question

Social contagion within the hip hop culture of consumption is an extremely important marketplace phenomenon. However, there has been little systematic research done to examine under what conditions it takes place, what encourages it, what limits it, and what effect it has on the well-being of consumers and the financial performance of brands. This research, therefore, aims to generate a grounded understanding of the mechanisms of social contagion within the hip hop culture of consumption. In particular, what are the processes by which social contagion happens among the tribe and how are consumption activities constructed and informed as a result of it? How does the propagation of memes and content, exchanged between the hip hop tribe, translate into culture characteristics within the hip hop culture of consumption? A netnographic analysis will enable this research to observe the interactions and exchanges within the hip hop culture of consumption to develop a rich understanding of how branded products diffuse throughout the tribe. The ever-expanding influence of hip hop on consumption behavior creates an urgency for marketers to better understand how branded products, across a spectrum of industries, are adopted and socialized among this consumption-positive tribe.