Gossypium hopi: Product Value for Consumers through Heritage, History and Culture

Abstract: 

Gossypium hopi cotton has a distinctive cultural history and is a part of Pueblo heritage. This study explores the benefits of cultivation and production for consumers as value; for designers, firms and brands as a tool for differentiation and for the Pueblo community as a means of reviving and safeguarding a component of their heritage. Today’s savvy consumer views traditional value offerings such as cost and availability as integral components of products and services they consider for purchase. In order for products to meet consumers’ expectations of distinctiveness, they must offer extraordinary value that connects with the consumer on a more profound level. Consumers’ comprehensive expectations can be met by incorporating Gossypium hopi’s and the Pueblo’s history, culture and heritage into all phases of product development, marketing and promotions. Furthermore, consumers can experience sustainable exclusivity, connect with a brand or product story and feel they are contributing to society through their purchase decisions. Brand differentiation may also be accomplished through this unique value story and communities such as the Pueblo community can continue to strengthen and grow in a culturally sustainable and economically beneficial fashion. Further exploration of methods to elevate Gossypium hopi to a luxury material through sustainable approaches and developing means to mesh new technology with heritage skills may lead to more sustainable competitive advantages for firms and benefits to society.

Table of Contents: 

    Introduction

    In a global society where speed to market, low prices and constant innovation are priorities, reaching an emotional connection with consumers presents both a challenge and an opportunity. As consumers participate more fully in brand positioning and success, their changing expectations and opinions cause brands to focus on developing strategies that will provide differentiation, as well as greater value for their consumers. A focus on products’ culture and heritage provide brands a means of creating greater value for their consumers through engagement with and emotional response to the brand or product. Consumers are increasingly searching for brands that not only address heritage and culture, but that help maintain and safeguard them. By exploring the history and botany of Gossypium hopi, the Pueblo people’s history as it relates to G. hopi and the cultural significance of cotton, as well as the emerging trend of highlighting culture and heritage and the importance of story, opportunities for brand differentiation, engaging consumers, and meeting their increased value expectations are identified.

    The Pueblo Community and Gossypium hopi.

    Cotton remains an important fiber for textile production due to the fiber’s inherent characteristics of breathability, strength, and durability. Although much of the fiber produced is genetically modified, cotton has a long, culturally rich heritage valued by many communities such as the Santa Clara Pueblo in Espanola, New Mexico. This community is reviving cultivation of Gossypium hopi as a sustainable and organic fiber option. By growing Hopi cotton, they can meet the needs of their community for fiber in a way that reestablishes traditional methods and maintains their cultural heritage. 

    The Pueblo’s revival of Gossypium hopi and traditional cultivation and processing of this aboriginal fiber positions this community to have the ability to fulfill the needs of their community and have an impact in textile fiber sourcing. In fashion and home furnishing merchandising, a product’s story begins with sourcing. In many cases, sourcing begins with raw materials, one of which is fiber. Taking into consideration consumers’ increasing focus on cultural elements, sourcing from small, culture-focused producers of fibers with a strong heritage and natural production methods offer opportunities to create an emotional connection with consumers. By looking at Pueblo culture and history and the cultural significance of Gossypium hopi, an opportunity for merchandisers to meet consumers’ emerging expectations of value through emotional connection is presented.  

    The History and Botany of Gossypium hopi

    Gossypium hopi has been noted as the only aboriginal cotton species in the southwestern United States, appearing at approximately 700 A.D. during the Pueblo I Period (Kent, 1957). Prior to this time, there is no known proof of cotton’s existence in the southwest (Kent, 1957). Kate Peck Kent (1957) includes a theory in her research that states Hopi cotton is a cross between “an American wild species and a domestic cotton from Asia.” Furthermore, this theory suggests that pre-Polynesian man brought the plant from Asia to Peru. From Peru, the cotton was disseminated by man to three regions, one of which was Central America including southern Mexico and Guatemala (Kent, 1957). The plant then spread north to Arizona and New Mexico from a Mayan center before the growth of the Aztec empire (Kent, 1957).

    Gossypium hopi has the shortest growing season on record, approximately 84 to 100 days and it can be cultivated in both arid and high altitude environments (Kent, 1957). The seeds were originally used for food and the fiber for weaving textiles (Kent, 1957). The fibers are 18-25 mm and the lint silky, strong and fine (Fulton, 1938). In past research it was believed that the small size of Hopi bolls and their low yield, approximately 1,403 bolls for 1 pound of lint, was an undesirable character for commercial production (Fulton, 1938); however, it is now known that the size of the boll is affected by the level of irrigation (Garcia, personal communication, March 1, 2014). With minimal irrigation the plants will yield a smaller boll whereas with increased irrigation, the bolls will grow to equal size of other cotton species (Garcia, personal communication, March 1, 2014).

    Traditionally, seeds were separated from the lint by hand. The aboriginal Hopi cotton seeds had a high oil content that facilitated separation of lint from seeds thus making this cotton a preferable crop for fiber production during times of hand separating and later ginning, however that characteristic no longer exists in the cotton plants (P. Swentzel, personal communication, March 1, 2014). After the ginning was completed, men carded the cotton, spun the yarn and wove the textiles, which usually consisted of “specialized items acquired, used, and discarded in a highly-prescribed ritual manner” (Webster, 1997).  

    Although the early Pueblos also used other materials for textile production, cotton was the only material cultivated for this purpose in the Southwest (Baldwin, 1939). It was primarily used for making cloth for robes and mantles, and to a lesser extent, to produce items such as sandals, belts and bags (Baldwin, 1939). Cotton continued as a primary fiber for textile production until the introduction of wool by the Spaniards in 1540 and with the introduction and accessibility of commercially produced textiles and yarns in the nineteenth century (Spicer 1954; Kent, 1957). After this time, cotton was only cultivated in certain villages specifically for ceremonial use (Kent, 1957).

    The Pueblo’s History as It Relates to and Cultural Significance of Cotton

    The northern Pueblo people, known as the Ancient Pueblo, populated the San Juan area from approximately the time of Christ and have been considered the oldest culture in North America (Kent, 1957; Leo & Anderson, 2007). Pueblo people, descended from the Ancient Pueblo, distinguished themselves from neighboring nomadic tribes through their originality and inventiveness in development of their communities (Leo & Anderson, 2007). Rather than nomadic in nature, Pueblo communities were farming communities, used irrigation systems, and lived in permanent houses (Leo & Anderson, 2007). These characteristics often associated with European communities of the time, were a part of Pueblo culture long before Spanish contact.

    Cotton was of great significance to Pueblo people initially as a food source and gradually as a textile fiber for clothing and blankets (P. Swentzel, personal communication, March 1, 2014). The textiles made from cotton often held central roles in sacred events and ceremonial rituals (Webster, 1997). Women in the community grew the cotton and men carded fiber, spun yarn and wove textiles (P. Swentzel, personal communication, March 1, 2014). The separating of seed from lint, or ginning, included a social component where family members joined together to talk, share a meal and accomplish the task (Swentzel, personal communication, March 1, 2014). As stated previously, Spanish introduction of wool greatly reduced the use of cotton and wool eventually became the primary fiber used for textiles (Leo & Anderson, 2007). For the Pueblo, there is great significance in each element of life. Cotton is associated with rain clouds. Rain clouds, in turn, represent their ancestors returning to bless the people with rain. Rain was, and continues to be, an important element for sustaining the land and growing food. Due to these beliefs and associated significance, cotton as a fiber and articles woven with cotton are important and hold a special place in the Pueblo people’s culture (Garcia, 2012). Today, the Pueblo people consider the revival of Hopi cotton an important contribution to their community and a way to maintain and safeguard a part of their heritage.

    An Emerging Value Trend - Heritage and Culture

    Heritage and culture, as value dimensions, have taken a backseat to speed-to-market and low cost. Consumers’ ability to purchase products quickly and inexpensively has led to a culture of instant purchase gratification (“The Objects”, n.d.). Instant gratification has, in turn, created the desire for products with meaning and lasting qualities (“The Objects”, n.d.). Generally, these qualities are found in luxury products, however even luxury brands, once viewed as exclusive, have experienced a drop in consumer perception of exclusivity. This is due, in part, to the fact that exclusivity and luxury are often associated in consumers’ minds (Carr, 2013). A study conducted by Altagamma and the Boston Consultancy Group found that the “’intrinsic values of craftsmanship, quality and exclusivity” are once again viewed as the most important factors for 70% of the 40,000 consumers surveyed in over 20 countries (Binni, 2014). These changes in consumer perceptions and their association with value have seemingly led firms to develop value innovation strategies and create the emerging trend of highlighting heritage and culture (Bang, 2010). These two elements, often communicated through craftsmanship, can educate consumers about materials and processes; create a sense of narrative and increase a brand’s legitimacy (Montgomery, n.d.). Craftsmanship, more often than not, includes skills passed down through generations and production methods with a foundation in history.

    Well-known luxury brands, realizing that consumers will pay premium prices if they recognize value, now strive to strengthen their luxury identity and clearly distinguish their products through collaborations and marketing (Carr, 2013; Montgomery, n.d.). LVHM created an event where the company opened its doors to its exclusive locations in Europe to showcase the craftsmanship that goes into their products and highlight their national and brand heritage to increase value for their consumers (Carr, 2013).  Similarly, Fendi produced a short documentary film to highlight the craftsmanship with which their products are made and to engage their customers by communicating that by purchasing a Fendi product, they are participating in something extraordinary (Jones, 2014).

    The Importance of Story

    A separation between consumer and producer has been created by mass production. As a result, consumers’ interest in the origin and story of products has increased brands’ opportunities to differentiate their products and enhance value by connecting with consumers on an emotional level (“Bespoke“, n.d.; (Still) Made Here”, n.d.). Here again the history, heritage and culture of Gossypium hopi and the Pueblo present a sourcing opportunity that can effectively shape a consumer’s experience, thus increasing value perception through story. A product’s heritage and cultural story can create a sense of discovery for consumers and elicit emotional responses. Through a sense of learning, deeper connections with products or brands may develop due to the experience of discovering something that may not be common knowledge (Brown, 2013). This, in turn, creates a sense of exclusivity for the consumer, differentiates products from competitors in the market, and makes the brand human and memorable to the consumer (Brown, 2013). Furthermore, the product’s story enriches the consumer experience while addressing the growing concern with ethical and sustainable production.

    Value through experience and meaning in purchases is another consumer value dimension that has led top-name designers such as Dries Van Noten, Jean Paul Gaultier, Carlos Miele, and Matthew Williamson, to incorporate heritage products from artisans in their collections (“Culture and Skills”, n.d.). In collaborations such as these, artisans, designers, and consumers all receive value and benefit. Artisans preserve heritage skills while contributing to the longevity of their cultures and their communities’ economies. Meanwhile, designers and brands are able to leverage the stories associated with artisans’ work to differentiate and add another level of exclusivity to their products. Efforts to meet consumers’ perceptual, as well as functional, value expectations are addressed by several firms in simple ways. Timberland, a footwear manufacturer, for example, now adds a story label to their products to reassure customers and create interest and engagement (“(Still) Made Here”, n.d.). Hiut Denim, in the Welsh town of Cardigan, created their product incorporating story as an integral part of their process and further engaged their consumers by including a link with instructions on their product history tags, where consumers can register and add memories associated with use of their product (Jiwa, n.d.). Other well-known companies that have leveraged stories to engage consumers by helping them feel a part of the product landscape include Apple and Zappos.com (Sloan, n.d.). Through the experience of purchasing and owning products from these brands and designers, consumers receive increased value in the quality and craftsmanship of the product and by the perception that they are contributing to something that benefits society. Because of this, their purchase experience is transformed from passive to active, where an emotional connection is more likely to result.

    Brand Differentiation, Consumer Engagement, and Increased Value Expectations

    The importance of a well-rounded value proposition cannot be overstated and companies should consider trends as guides for the development of strategic value differentiation. The fact that value is directly related to consumer satisfaction is supported by studies such as the 2013 Product Mindset Study. This study suggests that opportunities to increase consumer satisfaction exist by addressing the gap between consumer responses, indicating that supply chain transparency is important to them (84%), and consumer responses indicating that they do not believe manufacturers provide the desired transparency (42%) (“The Product Mindset”, n.d.). These statistics coupled with those that point to quality as the number one consideration for 95% of manufacturers and 51% of consumers, support the opportunity to fill the gaps by considering small, culture-focused sources for materials and including product story as part of the product development process (“The Product Mindset”, n.d.). Additionally, the World Trade Organization recognizes culture and heritage skill preservation as tools for differentiation for brands in competitive markets (“Culture and Skills”, n.d.). A focus on culture is also often viewed as an important aspect of economic growth and development (Klamer, 2001). Sourcing heritage-rich materials from communities such as the Pueblo, offer brands opportunities for supply chain transparency that also creates value differentiation. The heritage, history, and culture of the Pueblo can increase consumers’ value perception of brands sourcing Gossypium hopi for use in their products and by communicating these elements to their consumers.

    Practical Implications and Observations

    The advent of an era where consumers are no longer satisfied with only fulfilling their materialistic needs, but are also searching for deeper meaning, engagement and connection with brands as added value, has positioned materials once thought as common or unusable as viable options for apparel and home goods production. This shift in consumer value perception and the subsequent elevating of materials provide an opportunity to position cotton with a distinctive heritage and strong cultural association as a prime material for luxury goods. Gossypium hopi’s inherent qualities and the Pueblo’s dedication to growing and processing it using traditional methods, create a value-added element where tradition, culture, quality and sustainability meet to increase product value and brand differentiation.

    Possible Product Assortment/Offering

    A versatile fiber, cotton is used in a wide range of products including fashion apparel and home furnishing products. Trends in both markets indicate that small-scale production and craftsmanship in the processing of the fiber, and products made from it, are timely considerations. Even though new materials and methods of reusing materials to create responsible textiles exist, cotton’s heritage and strong influence in economic and cultural areas of society position it as an important fiber for artisanal, luxury products.

    Home products such as table runners, wall hangings and floor coverings woven using traditional methods but incorporating exaggerated textures and fringe are emerging as a trend for interiors in 2015 (“Confluence”, 2014). Additionally, as seen in the 2014 Spring Edition of the High Point Market, furniture trends where products are handcrafted by artisans using authentic methods are setting the style and quality standards for the home furnishings market (“Editor’s Picks”, 2014). Yarn and textiles made using Gossypium hopi can easily be incorporated into any of the aforementioned products. Furthermore, with the Pueblo’s significant focus on and expertise in traditional weaving methods, collaborations for product development with home products brands would result in unique, high-quality, artisanal products.

    Fashion trends for both men and women offer direction for design and product development. Stylesight’s forecasted “Modern Etiquette” megatrend (2013) for men emphasizes modern elegance for gentlemen. Beautifully crafted dress shirts and slacks made with textiles incorporating Gossypium hopi can convey elegance, honoring the past while establishing a standard for the modern man. Similarly for women, the “Bygone Bespoke” megatrend (2013) reinstates fine tailoring for women. On a more casual level, designers’ continued love of denim is fueling the trend of elevating denim to runway status as seen in Channel’s and Marc Jacobs’ shows (Welch, 2014). These trends, along with G. hopi’s heritage and cultural story, can position cotton as a go-to fiber for luxury apparel. G. hopi cotton textiles can offer the quality of past bespoke garments while incorporating more recent sustainability and social responsibility elements through the fiber’s heritage and culturally appropriate production methods. Although these two examples are in line with stated trend forecasts, other apparel products such as dresses, shorts, knits, and accessories can also be elevated to the luxury category.

    Potential Designer/Retailer Collaborations/Partnerships

    Established luxury brands’ familiarity with, and understanding of, craftsmanship and the value of heritage make them well suited for collaborations and partnerships with the growers of Gossypium hopi. Armani, whose experience with unconventional materials began in the early nineties, could be considered an excellent brand for collaboration or partnership (Buesing, 2014; McMillan, n.d.). Additionally, the brand’s established position in the luxury fashion category enhances the potential for success. A collaboration or partnership with Manolo Blahnik, Valentino, or Fendi could also provide an opportunity to work with an established luxury brand that is addressing sustainability at the luxury level to differentiate their brands and update product offerings (McMillan, n.d.).

    Well-known contemporary luxury brands with social, ethical, and environmental foci also present viable partnership and collaborative opportunities. Brands such as Edun, owned by LVMH and associated with Bono, his wife Stella McCartney, and Bruno Pieters, all present potentially advantageous partnership opportunities for products made from a heritage fiber such as Gossypium hopi (McMillan, n.d.). A more recent entrant into the luxury market with a dedicated focus on social and environmental issues is Maiyet. Maiyet, rapidly reaching status comparable to other similarly focused brands, might also provide collaborative and partnership opportunities for G. hopi growers (McMillan, n.d.).

    Promotional and Marketing Strategies

    The versatility of cotton allows targeting of most existing consumer market segments. However, due to the time and care with which Gossypium hopi is cultivated and processed, luxury brand markets present a better match for products incorporating G. hopi fiber. Keeping in mind the fact that G. hopi is currently grown only by Pueblo communities for weaving ceremonial products, alliances with well-known designers and brands mentioned previously will create awareness of G. hopi’s added value to established luxury markets consumers. Since a focus on the value added by heritage and cultural elements is key, the stories of the Pueblo and G. hopi will create interest and connection with consumers.

    Effective promotional strategies for products made with G. hopi should include cultural, educational, and social responsibility elements achieved through event sponsorships, social media, and initiatives to benefit society. Culturally focused events provide opportunities for meaningful sponsorships and story dissemination. These sponsorships could include locally specific events such as student fashion shows including the American Indian Graduate Student Association fashion show, and fashion exhibits at smaller, local galleries. Sponsorships can also include highly advertised, high profile events such as fashion week and fashion exhibitions in museums. Exhibits should highlight collections with elements of heritage and have a culture focus.

    Exclusivity is another powerful positioning tool to include in G. hopi’s and associated product marketing. Traditional cultivation and production of this fiber results in smaller levels of output, which subsequently restrict the product availability. This restricted availability together with the product’s quality, heritage, and story create a formula for success in the luxury market. Furthermore, a textile firm or designer sourcing G. hopi as a fiber, in yarn or textile form, has the potential of creating a first-to-market category for their products or designs through the combination of stated characteristics, quality, and the rarity with which this type of heritage-rich product is sourced in the United States for apparel and home furnishing products. One might further consider that elevating American-made to the status of European-crafted can be a potent and beneficial element for the first-to-market promotional strategy. This unique sourcing story adds further value and exclusivity and can contribute to the success of products launched in the luxury market. Social and cultural responsibility marketing initiatives should also focus on America’s culture and population. Re-shoring initiatives in the U.S. have focused mainly on manufacturing industries and bringing jobs back to the U.S. while educating firms about the economic benefits of local sourcing (“Coming Home”, 2013). While many companies now tout the “made in America” aspect of their business as a differentiating strategy, the strong focus on bringing jobs back to the U.S. can send a negative message to global supply chain partners. Furthermore, cotton’s heritage and history is often related to slavery, which can evoke negative feelings within the nation. Focusing on the G. hopi’s history and heritage, which is largely unrelated to cotton’s history in the Southern region of the United States, establishes a more positive position for cotton and does not impart questionable messages to international supply chain partners.

    Supply chain and economic considerations also contribute to social and cultural responsibility strategies for product promotion and can enhance public relations. Even though firms claim they are re-shoring, many still outsource part of their production (“Coming Home”, 2013). While the U.S. is the third largest producer of cotton in the world, 65% of its supply was exported between 2010 and 2012 and 99% of the cotton cultivated was transgenic (“Cotton is a”, n.d.). Sourcing socially and environmentally beneficial raw materials in greater proximity to other supply chain partners in the U.S. optimizes manufacturing processes, increases logistical efficiency, promotes better quality standards and increases cost effectiveness (“Coming Home”, 2013). Additionally, these supply chain benefits can be promoted as enhanced value through story to engage consumers as benefactors to society through their purchase decisions. This value story can be further enhanced by including information which highlights that products made with G. hopi cotton are produced from start to finish in the U.S.

    Fashion brands, luxury or otherwise, often focus their social responsibility initiatives internationally. By focusing initiatives on the needs of the American population, much needed assistance can be provided to people and industries within the U.S. This can evoke a sense of national pride and engage consumers in efforts to improve circumstances in underserved areas. A sense of national community without negative global connotations can be successfully achieved. Initiatives such as scholarships and community building, social entrepreneurship funds and funds dedicated for the revival and safekeeping of heritage skills would provide building blocks for positive brand image and long lasting brand equity.

    History, heritage, culture and related craftsmanship can be highlighted through story. The benefit of story is in that it is a key component in creating emotional connections between consumers and brands. Furthermore, story can differentiate brands in highly competitive markets. By incorporating story throughout product development, story can directly relate to product quality, craftsmanship, culture and heritage. The story not only makes the product better, it becomes part of the product (Jiwa, n.d.). Consumers then relate to the product, story and brand on a deeper, more personal level.

    Value to Consumer Groups and the Pueblo Community

    As discussed throughout this paper, consumers are searching for value beyond the materialistic experience. By engaging consumers through story about a product’s culture and heritage, the consumer becomes a part of the storytelling experience. More specifically, they will feel a part of something beyond their own lives and feel the motivation to share the story with their social groups. In sharing the story, they may feel a sense of ownership in the product or brand’s initiatives and success. Furthermore, consumers may feel a sense of community with other consumers of the same brands as well as with the Pueblo. Nothing seems to motivate people to help more than feeling part of a community or family.

    Value for the Pueblo community lies in providing for their community and ensuring the continuation of their cultural and heritage practices. Espanola, New Mexico is one of the poorest regions of the country (P. Swentzel, personal communication, March 1, 2014). Pueblo communities are filled with low-income, state supported housing (P. Swentzel, personal communication, March 1, 2014). Culture is diluted by financial need and government initiatives for assistance that are general in nature and do not reflect the communities’ culture and heritage. By reviving cultivation of Gossypium hopi, the Pueblo are not only reviving parts of their heritage, otherwise lost to current and future generations, but also creating a means of economic sustenance for their community. Through increased job availability and community resources, the Pueblo can shape housing, retail and education planning to better reflect their culture.

    Conclusions

    Consumer interest in a deeper value dimension along with brands’ search for differentiation in a highly competitive market create an excellent opportunity for reexamining material sources through the lens of culture and heritage. Further exploration of materials such as Gossypium hopi and methods of cultivation and production that hark back to a culture’s heritage, create opportunities for community economic growth within a specific cultural context; offer firms opportunities to source high-quality sustainable materials and create environments in which brand differentiation and equity can be accomplished. All within the context of making a profit, increasing sourcing options and contributing to society’s greater good.

    Pursuit of sustainability is increasing in the textile and apparel industry. Innovation with an eye toward sustainability has increased material reuse, recycling, upcycling and the development of materials from waste as evidenced by articles found in magazines, blogs and industry publications. All of these methods of promoting sustainability are admirable and highly beneficial practices for consumers and society. However, emerging as a different discussion yet still well aligned with sustainable practices are culture-focus and heritage. Further research into the development of methods to transform a heritage fiber, considered common by most, into a luxury product while maintaining the integrity of the culture which grows it and sustainable elements of production, is warranted. By examining these elements rather than simply focusing on genetic modification and advanced technology, may lead to a path where broader economic and social gains are feasible while honoring and safeguarding heritage. Although technology and scientific advances are important to society they may not honor culture and heritage. Heritage is not the old but rather the often forgotten foundation for, and common thread running through, our global society. And, this is something that consumers of all ages, economic standing and cultures instinctively value.

    Ultimately, further examining how heritage and culture can work hand-in-hand with technology and science to increase consumer value, brand differentiation and sustainable benefits to society may uncover profitable and brand equity building opportunities for brands and supply chain partners and fulfill consumers’ and communities’ unmet needs.  

    References