How Important is Being Cute to Retail Success?

Discussion
Jun 14, 2013

While marketers of all stripes have long obsessed on what it takes to be "cool," maybe being "cute" is even more important — at least to the female gender.

Researchers at Cleveland State University have published a white paper examining "the roots of ‘cute’ and its evolution with reference to its relevance to marketers." Researchers in particular sought to gain "a better understanding of what it is like to form social attachment and loyalty in the context of cute consumption and consumer culture theory."

In investigating ways women make purchasing decisions, the researchers found the word "cute" being widely used by women to describe a broad variety of items, prompting the study.

"At a certain point, it just hit me like a sucker punch," lead author Elad Granot told the Vancouver Sun. "Female consumers hardly ever use the term ‘cool’ to describe anything; but they use ‘cute’ all the time, about almost everything."

Among the study’s findings:

  • "Cute" is "feminine phenomenon" and rarely used by men to describe a product or item;
  • "Cute" is liberally used by women across demographics, from teenagers to Boomers, and also generally used in the same context;
  • While cute culture is said to have originated in Japan with an infantilization aesthetic (i.e., Hello Kitty), the western interpretation covers nearly any item evoking comfort, nostalgia, charm or cheerfulness.

Examples of "cute" items cited in the study, published in the Journal of Consumer Culture, included Victoria’s Secret’s Pink label, the Day-Glo accessories and retro sneakers linked with 1980s rave culture, and cars such as the Mini and Volkswagen.

One-on-one interviews with women led researchers to believe that the prevalent usage of the word spoke to a psychological need for reassurance, similarly to the way comfort food is said to be craved more during difficult economic times.

"Cuteness is a kind of cultural decoy," the researchers wrote. "(It’s) a soothing and simple distraction from a world whose boundaries and problems are becoming more complex by the day."

Mr. Granot told the Sun, "It’s a conscious decision made by consumers to cute-up their lives through consumption."

Why is “cute” used so often by women to describe a wide range of items? Do you agree with the study’s researchers on its “comfort” connotations? What lessons should marketers take from the study?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

Join the Discussion!

15 Comments on "How Important is Being Cute to Retail Success?"


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Ryan Mathews
Guest
8 years 11 months ago

First of all I find this whole discussion horrifically sexist. The idea that “the female gender” has a biological predisposition to the word “cute” or thinking in terms of “cuteness” is both offensive and patently ridiculous.

Language is, after all, a function of culture, not gender.

The notion that there is a cute culture based on a Japanese “infantilization aesthetic” is bad pop cultural, pseudo Freudian, psycho-babble and demonstrates Western cultural chauvinism at its worst, not to mention revealing a profound lack of understanding of how Hello Kitty succeeded as a brand.

Marketers should look at this study and remember that the latest flavor of analytical silliness isn’t automatically right just because it is absurd on its face.

Zel Bianco
Guest
8 years 11 months ago

Cute is a relative term that means nothing and something at the same time. Mr. Granot’s statement, “It’s a conscious decision made by consumers to cute-up their lives through consumption,” is an interesting take. I know that cuteness drives purchases in my home, albeit not from myself. However, “cute” can be used to describe something aesthetically or visually without having cultural connotations connected to it. People also don’t utilize the same nomenclature of the past, so ‘cute’ sometimes means something looks nice, appealing, flattering, etc. Categorizing all purchases made due to “cuteness” as somehow connecting consumers to a gloomy outlook in which they can only be “cute” while consuming seems a bit off base.

David Zahn
Guest
8 years 11 months ago

I have/had the same reaction Ryan did as I read this—however, I will also add that having recently walked through a Pier 1 store, the word “cute” was used far more often than would commonly be heard in Home Depot, RadioShack, or Sports Authority (rightly or wrongly, those stores thought of as appealing to “men”).

So, is there something to it? Is Ryan completely right that this is a far and inappropriate reach? It does feel like this article is a bit of “Cosmo Quiz” level of science or research that may be light on useful insights and actions.

Ryan Mathews
Guest
8 years 11 months ago

The Japanese word for “cute” is pronounced “Kawaii” and was originally only applied to dolls, small animals and babies.

The Japanese word “Kowai” which is pronounced a good deal like kawaii translates as “scary.”

Coincidence?

BTW—In Japan, men often exhibit kawaii tendencies, modified to fit the more traditional cultural masculine behavioral models.

And that is entirely more than should be said on this non-topic.

Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D.
Guest
8 years 11 months ago

I really question this study. First, I have heard the word cute used long, long before the Hello Kitty phenonmenon. Second, I have also heard men use the word cute. I do not think marketers should learn any lessons from this study.

Ryan Mathews
Guest
8 years 11 months ago

Camille is totally right.

The word “cute” is a little older than Hello Kitty.

It actually is an 18th Century truncation of the word acute and originally meant “shrewd.”

Warren Thayer
Guest
8 years 11 months ago

Cool! But as useful as a rubber beak on a woodpecker.

W. Frank Dell II, CMC
Guest
8 years 11 months ago

After 43 years of marriage I still have no idea how women think. My impression is, cool is used by teenagers and cute is used by women. It is a way of saying I like something, but do not have to have it.

Lee Peterson
Guest
8 years 11 months ago

Okay, this is officially the oddest topic ever on RetailWire…BUT, it matters! I think there’s a very fine line for female shoppers between ‘cute’ and ‘hot’, frankly. Cute could even be code for ‘hot’, or ‘I will look great in that’. Perhaps it’s just easier to say and has less ego connoted with it, but it boils down to appeal more than comfort, IMO. “That top is really cute!” As a marketer, that means “I will look fantastic in that” more than anything else.

But in any case, I’d take “cute” as a major compliment and huge step to purchase, even if it is code.

Doug Garnett
Guest
Doug Garnett
8 years 11 months ago
Here’s the important question he doesn’t deal with: What is cute? Semantics are killers. As the father of 2 boys with a wife who uses the word “cute” in the way noted above, what I find is that when my wife says “cute” I’d use another word. Handsome can be cute. Rugged can be cute. Cuddly can be cute. And yet, my wife really dislikes the aesthetic of the overtly cute (like Hello Kitten). Sadly, the way this discussion is written, the overtly cute is the implication many men take from the word “cute”. That said, I believe the need for “cool” has been superimposed by ad agencies and design agencies whose mid-life self images desperately need to retain “coolness” to avoid admitting that they’re aging. Do the young need “cool”? Once more, if we very carefully define what is cool. For some young, tech is cool. For others, hipster ethic is cool. For yet more, grunge is cool. Athletic wear may be cool. Urban has been self-defined as cool for years (But is it… Read more »
Bernice Hurst
Guest
8 years 11 months ago

Go, Ryan! That was my reaction as well and I am so glad not to be alone in it.
In my experience, the frequency of “cute’s” usage is very very American (and not in the nicest conceivable way). On visits to the U.S. over the past decade I have heard it used in a wide variety of contexts by people of all ages. The women tend to use it as a genuine compliment of all sorts of things, the men more often to describe women. I have distinct memories of boys using it when I was in high school to pick out cute girls (so it has indeed been around for a long time).

On the extremely rare occasions I’ve heard it used in the UK, it has been by men and women, usually describing a small child or animal. Those are about the only ways that don’t make me cringe.

Karen S. Herman
Guest
8 years 11 months ago

Cool, Ryan! Thanks for discounting this study so eloquently. I would like to add that the word “cute” in no way connotates “social attachment and loyalty” to me. It does, however, make me a bit suspicious when referencing a product, as it gives little detail and waxes of shallowness. Somewhat like this study.

M. Jericho Banks PhD
Guest
M. Jericho Banks PhD
8 years 11 months ago

Are you like me, cringing whenever females utter that insipid “awww” in any and all circumstances? You know what I mean. Heterosexual men never do that, but most women do. Are we just now realizing that females have a separate vocabulary? They even pronounce “cute” in their own special way – “cue-utt.”

Considering the well-known female affection for the word, “cute,” how can that be used in a marketing context? Thanks, David Zahn, for equating this topic to a Cosmo Quiz.

Pamela Tournier
Guest
Pamela Tournier
8 years 11 months ago
Ryan, the study doesn’t argue that women have a “biological” predisposition to use the term “cute”—it explores its cultural connotations. Which are very relevant to brand marketers. Yes, “cute” drives many purchase decisions in my home as well. I own 3 French Bulldogs all of whom come to the office with me; while some would characterize frenchies as a NY “hipster” breed, others (like myself) merely call them “cute.” It’s a personality thing. “Cute” is the essence of Frenchie brand personality. Kidding aside, I think the researchers are on to something. If what we buy reflects ourselves as we wish to be, or who we see ourselves as, then “cute” is a valid dimension—just as much as “cool”—and yes, “cute” does connote something different. “Cute” doesn’t take itself seriously (“cool” does). That’s the charm and cheerfulness aspect. As for comfort and nostalgia, those dimensions are present as well, but playfully so: the past evoked with a smile and a wink. Again, the essence of “cute” is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. I don’t… Read more »
Mike Osorio
Guest
Mike Osorio
8 years 11 months ago

This is an unbeleivably shallow discussion. However, in a particular market segement, ensuring a brand or retail offer resonates as “cute” does make a difference. Rather than getting lost in the psycho-babble aspects of the discussion, we should be able to agree that for each market segment, language is important in terms of how the consumer describes an offer and what that word connotates for them in terms of attraction and purchasing behaviors.

Cool? Cute? Comfortable? Hot? Lovely? They all mean something or nothing, depending on the context.

wpDiscuz

Take Our Instant Poll

Is it better for most brands to be cool or cute?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...