Cultured Marketing

Jul 06 2011

Cross-cultural differences

I’ve written previously about the importance of understanding cultural context to interpret human behaviour and there has been extensive research on cross-cultural differences, especially in the workplace.  Edward Hall was one of the pioneers of such work, and was the first to focus on the context sensitivity of different cultures, comparing high-context cultures such as Japan with low-context cultures such as the US and UK.  In high context cultures, he found that there was often little need for much written or oral information as individuals were heavily socialised and sensitive to contex, whereas individuals in low-context culture require much more background detail in order to interpret information.  Visual communications without verbal information can work very effectively in high-context cultures because of such sensitivity.

Edward Hall also found cross-cultural differences in the perception of time and (personal) space.  Personal space differences are manifest in the distance kept between individuals when communicating (South Americans like to get more up close and personal than Americans for example).  Time differences cover a number of aspects: the scheduling of time which can be monochronic (distinguishing between activities) and polychronic (not distinguishing between activities; time orientation (past, present or future); perception of time as linear or circular; and interpretation of cause and effect.  For example Americans and many European cultures interpret time in a very linear fashion whereas Japanese culture sees time as cyclical.  Chinese culture would combine past and future into a holistic view of the world, whereas many South East Asian cultures are much more present oriented.

The dimensions of culture

Several researchers have developed sets of characteristics or dimensions with which to evaluate and compare cultures, with most of the work developed from workplace studies and surveys.  The most commonly known and applied work is that of Geert Hofstede who initially developed four dimensions of culture with a fifth (and recently a sixth) added to the list.  We will focus on the first five for which there are publicly available data across some key Asian markets.

The first of the five dimensions is POWER DISTANCE, or the degree to which members of a culture automatically accept a hierarchy with unequal distribution of power in organisations and more generally in society (which is typical of many Asian countries for example).  The second dimension is UNCERTAINTY AVOIDANCE, or the degree to which members of a culture deal with uncertainty and risk in everyday life especially when they prefer to work with long-term acquaintances and friends rather than strangers.  The third dimension is INDIVIDUALISM (versus COLLECTIVISM), or the degree to which individuals perceive themselves as separate from others and free from group pressure to conform (Asian cultures are typically more collective than Western cultures).  The fourth dimension is MASCULINITY, or the degree to which a national culture looks favourably on aggressive and materialistic behaviour.  The fifth dimension is TIME HORIZON, or the degree to which a society exhibits a pragmatic future-oriented perspective rather than a conventional historical or short-term point of view (a very strong characteristic of Chinese culture for example).  There is a comparison of China, France, India, Japan, Singapore, Thailand and USA in the table below.

Power distance Individual Masculine Uncertainty avoidance Time horizon
China High Low Medium Medium High
France High High Medium High Low
India High Medium Medium Medium Medium
Japan Medium Medium High High High
Singapore High Low Medium Low Medium
Thailand High Low Low High Medium
US Low High High Low Low

Cultural metaphors

Martin Gannon has worked on applying such frames of reference to develop cultural metaphors which provide rich contextual value to understanding the values and thinking of different cultures around the world, including the countries in the table above.

The metaphor used for China is The Great Wall reflecting the long, difficult and complex history of China, the importance of Confucian and Taoist thinking (placing particular importance on family values), and the application of Sun Tzu’s principles to life and commerce.  Chinese culture is extremely high in long-term orientation and for the importance placed on family values (which is reflected in a separate metaphor for the Chinese diaspora of The Chinese Family Altar).  All these values are combined with a very pragmatic approach to life in a fast changing world.  It’s interesting to compare Sun Tzu (who’s treatise should perhaps be renamed The Art of Peace) with von Clausewitz who provided Western cultures version of the principles of war.  Clausewitz emphasised the importance of overwhelming force, a principle that has been applied in European warfare over the last century and in US strategic thinking too).  By comparison, Sun Tzu’s first and over-riding principle was to win without fighting whenever possible!

That leads me neatly to American football as the metaphor for the USA, with a highly competitive and individualistic society and a focus in the game of selection, training camps and often very complex plays and technical rules.  Individual achievement is looked highly upon within the group framework, but there is emphasis on aggressive risk taking even when the outcome is not predictable.

Baroness de Rothschild once said that “wine making is really quite a simple business.  Only the first 200 years are difficult”, revealing the essence of French wine as a metaphor for French culture, and the importance of pureness, classification, composition (over time) and maturation of French values.

By contrast, the metaphor for Indian society is The Dance of Shiva.  Some say that what holds India together are religion, family, cricket and Bollywood!  All are bound up in the cyclical nature of Hindu philosophy which lies at the heart of the Dance of Shiva, with the cycle of life, the cycle of family, the cycle of social interaction and the cycle of work and play.

By contrast, the Japanese garden is a very tranquil place, with an emphasis on Wa (harmony), Shikata (the proper way of doing things), Seishin training (learning the art of self control) and a high value placed on aesthetics and each member of society viewed as just one droplet in the stream of water running through the garden.

For Singapore the metaphor is the Hawker Centre, which is the centre of Singaporean life, reflecting ethnic diversity (but unity of purpose), efficiency, safety and the synthesis of modern and traditional values.  Singapore is particularly low on uncertainty avoidance in Hofstede’s dimensions, reflecting an openness and entrepreneurial spirit.

Finally, the Thai Kingdom is the metaphor for Thai culture, reflecting a loose vertical hierarchy (rules don’t always have to be followed), the values of freedom and equality, the Thai smile and the mai pen rai attitude of acceptance of what life brings.

Culture and marketing

Culture is rich with associations, representing a multidimensional soup of mental shortcuts that we all use every day.  Cultural metaphors can be useful ways of summarising these associations, but do they have a use in marketing and research?  Here are a few examples of many.

In lower power distance cultures (for example Scandinavian countries), parents play with their children as equals.  LEGO was unsuccessful in France for some time because the brand concept was built on parents and children constructing buildings together (rather than children constructing buildings with other children).  Typically in large power distance countries the elder advises the younger, but that doesn’t work in lower power countries so at least one company has changed their advertising for some small power distance cultures so that the daughter advises the mother instead!

Similarly, many Asian cultures are collectivist, emphasising goals, needs and views of the in-group over the individual (as opposed to the more individualistic outlook of many Western societies.  One outcome of this is that collectivist cultures often prefer corporate brands over individual product brands, and advertising that portrays someone alone can often imply that the person has no friends (or even no identity) which could be seen very negatively.  Think of the difference between, “It’s so good I want to share” versus, “It’s so good I want to keep it to myself”.

Masculine societies value achievement and success, whereas feminine societies value caring for others and quality of life.  This means that being a “winner” is seen positively in masculine societies and negatively in feminine societies which value “modesty” more highly.

In cultures with high uncertainty avoidance, conflict, competition, innovation and change can be seen as threatening.  In such countries, positionings based on purity and safety may work very well (e.g., the purity of a bottled water).

Finally, long-term orientation means a very pragmatic and future-oriented view of life, which would lead to a very functional take on life, valuing thrift, stability and perseverance (even above tradition).

Such values can be used to adjust communications to make them more relevant to the values of specific cultures, or even as the basis of a brand’s overall positioning.

Which of the dimensions do you think this communication is aligned with and which countries do you think might be most receptive?


Beyond Culture by Edward Hall (1984)

Understanding Global Cultures: Metaphorical Journeys through 29 Nations, Clusters of Nations, Continents and Diversity by Martin Gannon & Rajnandini Pillai (2010)

Global Marketing and Advertising: Understanding Cultural Paradoxes by Marieke de Mooij (2010)

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