News & Views

Opinion / The Curious Case of the Cultural Conundrum

by Contagious Contributor

Culture can be the difference between campaign success and market failure. Pinaki Dutt, MediaCom’s global head of applied connected intelligence, explains why making a connection has become critical


Humans are mysterious creatures. Why does one group really love a campaign, but a different group, living just a few hundred or a thousand miles away, completely ignore it or worse actively hate it?

The reason is that we are all creatures of culture. And cultural variations present increasing challenges for marketers who are trying to create global or regional campaigns that they hope will deliver the goods right round the world.

The issue is that cultural change doesn’t occur in a linear, gradual way. Cross the border in some parts of Europe and you’ll find a step change in key cultural attributes that don’t just reduce effectiveness a little but destroy it.

The science of understanding culture was first tackled in the 1970s by management guru Dr Geert Hofstede. Using the workforce of IBM as a proxy for global citizens, he created the first-ever cultural framework, via the identification of six key factors.

The results were used to create a rough map of the cultural world – although one that was based only on working citizens. That map grouped countries into six segments with some very interesting combinations/cluster peers – proving that geographical borders are not necessarily cultural.

This original data set puts China, India and Singapore in one cluster, France Belgium and Spain in another, the UK alongside New Zealand, Canada and the US, with Turkey teamed up with Thailand, Greece and Korea.

Such findings have traditionally been applied by HR professionals to manage teams but very rarely to marketing.

That’s strange because in a world of multinational, multimarket brand structures measures such as Hofstede’s famous metric, the Power Distance Index (PDI), have real power.

We can use PDI, for example, to explain the dynamics of using celebrity based campaigns. Why does an approach work in one market, but not translate to others, even if the spokesperson is switched to a local relevant star?

In high PDI markets such as Indonesia, power centricity translates to celebrity endorsement providing both recall as well as credibility. In contrast, a low PDI market like the US will have high recall of the celebrity but not necessarily credibility of messaging, breaking the path to purchase.

Understanding such dynamics – in combination with other cultural factors – allows us to identify what will be more effective in the market.

Similarly, cultural understanding is helping us understand social media behaviour like never before. While usage levels are largely similar from market to market, culture helps decode what consumers do and why. For example, Hofstede’s Individualist vs Collectivism metric – Indonesia scores highly as a more Collective market while Australia is ranked as more Individualist – is a key factor determining the difference in volume and tonality of social chatter. This understanding helps us identify the best way to build earned media mentions.

Or take the correlation of Uncertainty Avoidance Index and its impact on planning for launch campaigns. Cultural understanding is helping us understand why in some markets – Japan, Russia and France all qualify as high UAI countries – initial success is hard to come by or even if it comes, the real challenge is sustaining it.

Knowing the cultural framework for each market helps identify the correct solution, which could involve changing the marketing to opt for a longer, more drawn out launch phase to get new behaviours fully established before switching to maintenance activity has the potential for amplified ROI.

We are in the process of refreshing the power of Hofstede’s research by surveying 60,000 consumers in more than 60 markets, because we think that culture has become even more critical for today’s marketing.

Hofstede provides some solutions from his original data but the enhanced understanding we need for today’s digital market requires updated groups and metrics.

The bottom line for all brands is that campaigns that don’t connect with the local culture won’t provide improved perceptions, greater awareness or boost sales.