Defining Cross-Cultural Marketing

03Mar09

A typical definition of cross-cultural marketing, at least in the academic sense, often focuses on the differences between communication styles (or needs) among members of different cultures.

Search the topic in Google and you’ll find representative articles ranging from what is culturally appropriate in Japan to the subtle differences in messages despite the best translation efforts.  You can find examples of embarrassing marketing “blunders” (you’re probably familiar with many of these cases but they are fun to read anyway).

But in a strictly marketing sense, what do we mean by cross-cultural marketing? Are international marketing and cross-cultural marketing the same thing?

One might argue that with the increasing globalization of products and media, international marketing IS cross-cultural marketing. Yet, in reality, it is much more involved than that.

Globalization vs. cross-culturalization

In an article discussing the importance of understanding cross-cultural marketing issues Robert Guang Tian, Ph. D, makes an important point: that our first step in cross-cultural marketing is to recognize that no one culture is superior to any other. He says very elegantly, “It is important for the marketers know that there is no room for ethnocentrism in the 21st Century marketing practice.

For many Western, and especially North American companies, that is in an important lesson to learn.

“Globalization is an inevitable process in the 21st Century, and so is the cross-culturalization. On the one hand, the world is becoming more homogeneous, and distinctions between national markets are not only fading but, for some products, will disappear altogether. This means that marketing is now a world-encompassing discipline.

However, on the other hand, the differences among nations, regions, and ethnic groups in terms of cultural factors are far from distinguishing but become more obvious.”

Respecting the differences

Marketers will want to know how to translate an understanding of cultural differences into effective cross-cultural marketing strategies – turning them into a direct plan of action. How will the deliverables differ from country to country? How must a web site’s design differ? How does the “digital divide” affect a marketing roll-out plan from country to country?

Two theories about cultural differences often referenced are those drawn from the models of Geert Hofstede and Edward T. Hall. These theories are nearly three decades old, but their categories for considering differences are still valid. They discuss cultural differences within the framework of “Uncertainity Avoidance,” Individualism vs. Collectivism and “low-context” vs. “high-context” communication.

Several researchers have demonstrated how cultures with low “uncertainty avoidance” are more open to innovations like the Internet as a new medium of communication; that is, they tend to be early adopters with a high diffusion rate. In a research paper, Marc Hermeking from the Institut für Interkulturelle Kommunikation Ludwig-Maximilians-Universtaet Muenchen, describes the cultural differences of media consumption and internet usage, as well as cultural preferences for web site design considerations.

Two interesting conclusions from this paper’s theories, which might provide some “take away” ideas for marketers, include:

Cultures are not converging. The prediction of a convergence of culturally different markets into a “one-world” culture that would facilitate standardization of global marketing activities has turned out to be an illusion. “Too many non-cultural hard factors and cultural soft factors still exist or arise as constraints on international marketing that have to be dealt with continuously, utilizing various strategies of adaptation or localization,” Hermeking says.

People prefer local brands. Keep in mind that for many products, and what becomes increasingly more apparent on the internet, there is a “not-invented-here-syndrome” or “country-of-origin” effect. Typically, this means products or services from the home country garner a more positive image than those from foreign countries. As a result, many smart marketers localize their products, and web sites, as much as possible and advertise them as if they were local brands.

A cross-cultural marketing definition

So, then, what would we say is the definition of cross-cultural marketing?

Cross-cultural marketing is international marketing on a personal level. It means considering cultural differences when planning marketing campaigns and media; realizing the need for a balance between localization and globalization; and most importantly, implementing strategies that respect differences while seeking to unify brand messages.

Sidebar: Here is an interesting and succinct summary of some important cultural “mistakes” to avoid.

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26 Responses to “Defining Cross-Cultural Marketing”

  1. 1 Nastasia

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  3. 3 MorpheusMirror

    Culture marketing is the main way I believe we will have to think in the future. With so many channels available there seems no other way to be highly effective both online and offline.

    Hofstede has a great multiple cultural marketing framework for the macro level. How do we cross cultural brand market to micro-niches, will be the next great question needing an answer

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