Global marketing + cultural classifications = success

Posted: 11 Sep 2023

Culture and marketing go hand in hand. Understanding different regional cultures offers critical insight for marketing managers. Culture is generally accepted by marketing researchers as one of the most important influences on buying behaviour.

What makes classifying cultures particularly interesting is that it creates the opportunity for marketers to make their branding appealing in every country. It provides a roadmap for marketers when they are examining what may, or may not, resonate in their different markets. Using classification, we are able to improve our understanding of people and their behaviour. Consequently, over the years, various experts have created models that we can now use to grasp how cultures differ.

Localising content means marketers can reach consumers effectively and in a way that resonates with them because it talks to experiences or nuances that they will understand. These classification models demonstrate just one approach of how marketers can localise their brand and their content successfully. Classifying cultures is a process that requires great sensitivity, which is why there are multiple theoretical models and decades of research into this subject.

In this article, we explore how the most common cultural classification models can be used to inform the localisation of marketing campaigns.

Culture classifications for marketing

Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory

Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory uses a series of spectrums on which cultures can be placed, the combination of these placements results in unique cultures, but also shows where they are similar. This can greatly help marketers to conceptually understand key differences and similarities between the cultures they operate in.

Individualism versus collectivism

This dimension proposes that certain cultures are individualist. In practice, this would be a society in which people are independent of one another and are self-serving as opposed to serving the collective. Alternatively, some cultures are collectivist and these cultures prioritise the needs of the group rather than an individual or themselves.

Uncertainty avoidance

Uncertainty avoidance describes a society’s tolerance for ambiguity, probability and structure. Where some cultures seek order, others possess a willingness for risk-taking and an acceptance of limited structure.

Power distance

Power distance, the third concept of Hofstede’s theory, suggests that cultures can have opposing beliefs about power. Some believe that power should belong to those in positions of authority or distributed in a hierarchy, whereas some construe that power should be evenly distributed so no one person is more powerful than another.

Masculinity versus femininity

Finally, Hofstede proposed the concept of masculinity versus femininity. This was a belief in achievement and ambition versus a belief in nurturing and caring for others. This may be reflected in a country having more of an invested interest in materialism and the economy (masculine) as opposed to caring more for their influence on the environment (feminine).

So, how does this relate to consumer buying behaviour? For researchers, over the years these classifications have been the basis used to define eight consumer styles, also known as the Consumer Style Index, or the CSI. These eight styles are:

  • The perfectionistic – the consumers who have a vested interest in high quality, premium items
  • The brand-conscious – those who seek to buy items with well known or established labels
  • The novelty-fashion conscious – those who are trend seekers or setters
  • The recreational or hedonistic – those who enjoy shopping as an entertainment method or relaxing activity
  • The price-value conscious – also known as bargain hunters
  • The impulsive or careless – consumers who shop with no aim or purpose
  • Confused by over-choice – shoppers who often regret their purchases
  • The habitual and brand-loyal – consumers that are creatures of habit. If something works, then why change it?

Consumer behaviour is a reflection of the cultural classification in each specific culture. One example is Japan. Japan is high on the collectivism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance and power distance scale. This means the consumers in Japan are less likely to indulge with global brands and retailers, meaning that Japan is one of the most difficult markets to enter. For this reason, Japan’s consumers may be defined as perfectionistic or perhaps habitual. They prioritise brand trust, reputation, quality and value over price. If you want some tips on breaking into Japan, check out our webinar.

If we compared this to the USA, the two would be at opposing ends of the scale. Research has found that the USA can be seen as an individualist culture, so where they may be high on the power distance and masculinity scale, this is for independent gain rather than collective. This makes America an indulgent culture and a much easier market to succeed in, using these behaviours and classifications allows you to get to know your market.

This cultural understanding can be seen in action by Hilfiger, where their advertising agency examined a UK advert and interpreted what needed to change to better suit Chinese cultural norms. For example, where the main character in the UK advert was on his own, for the Chinese version they suggested he be with friends. Where freedom was suggested in the western version, responsibility should be celebrated in the eastern version. This example shows that cultural understanding isn’t just about avoiding cultural ‘blunders’, but also understanding how best to tap into the emotional preferences of audiences in different cultures.

Hall’s theory of proxemics

In addition to Hofstede’s classification model, Edward Hall proposed a Theory of Proxemics. This stated that there were high and low context cultures and this impacted communications greatly—an integral part of marketing.

High context cultures have close connections among group members to the extent that every person knows what every other person knows. This enables the group to use non-verbal signals and cues to communicate. A low context culture is one that is linear, action-oriented and the information is explicit, rational and verbal.

For example, Japan is generally considered a high-context culture, meaning people communicate based on inherent understanding. The USA, on the other hand, is considered a low-context culture, relying largely on explicit verbal explanations to keep everyone on the same page. Communication is key in marketing and so understanding these cultural elements will help you decide the best marketing approach for you.

Classification allows marketers to connect with consumers through far more tailored advertising, opening a market up to global expansion. Localising your brand and content in this way will ensure you respect the culture or country you are targeting whilst simultaneously successfully growing your brand awareness and image.

So, knowing all this, how should you market your brand? Should you use a hard-sell or a more indirect alternative? And how do you localise your content successfully? These are all things you need to consider before marketing internationally.

An example of cultural classification in action and its impact in marketing is Nike. In 2020, Nike released an advertising campaign in Japan highlighting racial discrimination in the country. As a high context culture with high regard for trusted voices, this overt messaging from an American company was strongly criticised. As explained by Morley-Robertson, a Japanese-American journalist, it is important that brands create a deep understanding of Japanese culture.

In the case of Nike, it was widely seen as an overseas brand criticising Japan. “They are crudely putting a spotlight onto a subject that many feel should be off-limits to guests. It’s a huge own-goal for Nike,” says Steve McGinnes, the author of Surfing the Asian Wave.

However, this outcry could have been easily avoided. “If a foreigner demonstrates a deep understanding of Japanese culture or Japanese rules, then those same Japanese who would otherwise take offence will gush forth with praise,” Morley-Robertson says.

Emotions are an element of culture that are complex to understand, as we will explore further in our next blog on the subject.  Nevertheless, although a multifaceted subject, marketing professionals can reap huge rewards from truly understanding the cultures in which they are targeting and these classification models are a starting point for providing that understanding.

We’ve created a free-to-download guide to support your next steps in planning global marketing campaigns. It’s packed with tips and advice!

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Helpful Resources:

Culture and the Customer Journey

Cultural Appropriations: don’t be an invader

Nike’s diversity advert causing a backlash in Japan

Understanding the impact on culture of marketing content

Cross-Cultural Consumer Behaviour: A review of research findings