A Change in Society as Reflected on Facebook

The phenomenal success of “You are from Rimini if”

Understanding why people do what they do has always been my passion. A key aspect of our jobs as marketers is to deeply understand human behavior and to observe how entire societies move in different markets. Even more interesting is when you can actually see things coming and plan accordingly, a concept applicable in many areas of life, from politics to sport to brands.

Wayne Gretzky, one of the strongest hockey players of all times, once said: “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.” As in hockey, forecasting future trends has become vital to marketing planning.

Last month when I started observing the rapid growth on Facebook of groups like “You are from Rimini if…”, and similar groups popping up for towns and cities all over Italy, my immediate thought was: “I knew it!”

My thought, however, was not backed up by any sort of personal vision and future forecasting abilities, but rather by years of studies and experiences that we, at Garrison Group, have accumulated. In an article in BrandAge last year, Paul Garrison described how through collaboration with Synovate and Richard Farkas (political scientist from the University of DePaul, Chicago, IL), we reached what we call “The Kwaśniewski Curve.”


The Kwaśniewski Curve – A 20 years evolution of values and attitudes

The curve shows in a clear and immediate way the evolutionary process that all former Communist and many other rapidly changing markets over the last 20 years have taken (or will take in some cases). It takes its name from Kwaśniewski because Poland was the first to complete the curve and the Polish president was the first to acknowledge the change in society’s mindset and use it in his favor during his speeches.

A 20 years evolution of values and attitudes

The curve shows the three typical steps that each country in that region has gone through. The first step (bottom right of the map) focuses on belonging, security, and control. This  is where the Soviet Union was: stable, secure, non-materialistic, and family-focused. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the whole of society moved rapidly to the left, toward power and recognition – a focus on self. This phase showed capitalism at its worst: purely focused on individual materialism, relentlessly pursuing a consuming lifestyle, without actually caring about the necessary compromises on social values to achieve the final goal – gotta have it! It was during the time when flashy gold chains and big black Hummers were seen as indicators of success, not as indicators of bad taste as they are today.

As time went by, people started missing some of the traditional values of the Communist era, in particular, the sense of belonging (we’re all in it together) that characterized that period, though they rejected the more traditional way of living and the tightly controlled aspects of the past.  What people started looking for was a modern lifestyle coupled with traditional values: society moved to the upper-right corner of the map toward enjoyment and conviviality, to incorporate those traditional social values into a sense of belonging. Let’s take a practical example: during the Communist era, people would gather in the courtyard of a block of flats to watch a football match together on a small boxy TV, with someone awkwardly standing by trying to keep the antenna in the right position so as not to lose the signal.  Transitioning to capitalism in the late 1990s and early 2000s, they watched the match alone at home, in front of a newly bought high-end flat-screen TV. All very convenient and self-indulgent but without social interaction. What fun is that for a big football match?  During Kwaśniewski’s presidency, Polish people started missing the togetherness and began sharing recollections of “the good old days.”  They wanted some of that back while still maintaining the modern and comfortable lifestyle that they had begun to grow accustomed to watching the big match together in front of a big flat-screen TV…but now with an accompanying big sofa, yelling, swearing, and cheering together with family and friends.

This process of societal norms moving from a focus on self to a focus on others is organic and evolutionary, meaning that it cannot be stopped by external factors. It can be slowed down or accelerated by the political and economic environment, or temporarily deviated from even in the case of a radical situation (a war or revolution), but it will sooner or later come back to follow the flow of the curve.  After all, deep down inside, we are all social beings.

The diagram depicts the current status view of some emerging and dynamic economies that we have worked with during their continuing evolution along their own version of the Kwaśniewski curve.

  A current status view of some emerging and dynamic economies

As you can see, the small country of Moldova is still in the initial stages of the Kwaśniewski curve – striving toward materialistic capitalism and focus on self. The Communist Party, as of the latest election (2010), is still the biggest political force in the country and their ideology is still not very different from the old Soviet times. As the classic rock band, The Who, sang – “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.” This certainly applies to Moldova.  Even though the more progressive Liberal Democratic Party in Moldova is growing, it still hasn’t completely entered the values shift area of the Kwaśniewski curve.  Ukraine, instead, was well into the curve a few years ago, when it started developing nicely into the second phase (modern lifestyle with traditional values) toward the upper-right corner as well – even if it is still at the relative beginning of this shift in values. Having a big black Hummer in Ukraine is still considered cool.  Particularly interesting in this case are the current events in Ukraine, with the population actively resisting a government that tries to limit their eagerness to move forward.   A similar form of public expression may be happening in Turkey to some degree, although the history is much different.  Politics and politicians can only slow down the natural evolution of the curve; they cannot stop the transformation of society.

At the time of writing this article, the situation in Ukraine is uncertain, even though the long-term movement of society values and attitudes is inevitable.  Turkey as well.

Romania is slightly ahead of Ukraine, while Poland has moved well beyond the right-hand shift in the curve.  Russia is still not there, but it’s on its way, even if sometimes with authoritative limitations (the “heavy” atmosphere during the Olympics in Sochi confirms this).

Another interesting case is Georgia that was pushed artificially up to the top-left quadrant by former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who strove to create his own interpretation of how he would like his society to transform after the Rose Revolution of 2003. His efforts to impose a rather one-sided interpretation of an American lifestyle model on to Georgian society made the country move temporarily toward power and vitality for some years.  However, the situation was not sustainable because that is not what Georgia is or who it wants to be.  Now Georgia is returning to the more natural and organic path of the Kwaśniewski curve.  Nobody does 24/7 unrelenting friendship like a Georgian – this societal and personal value is a deep part of who they are.  You can take the Georgian out of Georgia, but you can never take Georgia out of the Georgian.

Understanding the incredible growth of “You are from Rimini if…”

This article started by mentioning a social media phenomenon currently growing at an incredible pace in a very well- developed western market.  In Italy, hundreds of groups named “You are from Rimini if…” (or Trieste, San Marino, Perugia, a district of Milan, or Rome, etc.) and their rapid growth, both in number of participants and in terms of interactions among users, has been incredible.

However, as I illustrated through the Kwaśniewski curve, ex-Communist and other rapidly evolving markets could also include countries like Turkey which are typically not associated with lifestyles and attitudes in Italy.  Or are they?

We can say that Italy had a different evolution, due to a very different cultural and political situation spanning hundreds of years. However, what all these countries have in common with Italy and other more modern Western societies is the arrival point.  Once a nation reaches the maturity stage in the Western world, we can then usually see a slight cyclical movement of societal norms between the left and right sides on the top part of the personality dimensions map.  In particular, during a period of economic boom, people tend to move toward power, vitality, and enjoyment (e.g. the Clinton era), while during crisis society tends to move toward conviviality and a sense of belonging (e.g. the Obama era). What differs among more mature countries, however, is the length of this movement. This is turn greatly depends on the impact of the government and economic factors on citizens’ lives.

In countries that privilege autonomy, independence, and liberalism, the government’s effect on mitigating the societal shifts is minimal (like in the USA), both in good times or bad. The overall economic and social conditions at the time are the big drivers.  In other, more socialistic countries, like Norway for example, government intervention is much higher and, as a consequence, the effects of an economic boom or crisis on the population are much lower (society still moves toward the left or right on the map, but always stays pretty close to the center, never assuming radical shifts).

So, what is happening in Italy? The end of 2013, but in particular the beginning of 2014, has seen an incredible growth of thousands of groups called “You are from _____ if…”   The impressive growth of these community-rooted groups is not only relative to their number, but it is also matched by extremely high activity and user interaction. I take as an example of the group of my hometown, Varallo Pombia (http://www.facebook.com/groups/541481619293427). Varallo is a small village of only 5000 people and the group, created on January 24, already has 566 members, with an average number of posts per day of 350, with peaks of over 500. Considering the size of the town and the velocity of the word-of-mouth effect that it has generated, I would say that it has been an incredible success.

However, is this success sustainable? The core value that the group is built on is the nostalgia of the past, where everything was simpler and more beautiful. Different generations with very little in common are pleasantly interacting, united by common thoughts and memories: the beauty of the past compared to the awkward, turbulent, and difficult present, an adverse present full of difficulties and broken promises, especially for the young generation. From 2007 to 2013, the unemployment rate of young Italians between 15 and 29 years practically doubled, passing from 15% to 28%, over 40%, if we consider only the range 15‒24 years.

Unemployment Rate Evolution Among Young Population

The prospects for the future are even more uncertain, with the current unstable political situation and the fear of ending up bankrupt like Greece always prevalent.

The reality is that the impressive growth of all these groups is sustained by a common dissent toward the present and by the feeling of insecurity that it represents. While at the beginning, the dialogs and the experiences shared were nostalgic, but in a positive and constructive way, unfortunately after the initial enthusiasm, the polemic tone started becoming more strident. Consequently, it is likely that as soon as the crisis starts hitting with less force, the rapid decline of all these groups will take over.

The phenomenon observed in Italy is not as particular as it might appear at a first sight. The hard period of crisis pushed people towards the sense of belonging, where they felt more protected and safer, in opposition to the feeling of loneliness and abandonment that they had without expressing their worries out loud.

In conclusion, we might spend thousands of pages describing the differences in how consumer behavior differs country by country. More interesting and relevant as we try to predict the future directions of our markets and the societies in which we live and work, is describing what makes us similar.  In the world we might have many differences, according to our cultural, religious, social, and political backgrounds, but there is one thing that everybody on Earth has in common: when we feel in danger, we look for protection among something (or someone) we know very well.

As American journalist Linda Ellerbee once said: “People are pretty much alike. It’s only that our differences are more susceptible to definition than our similarities.”

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