Cultural and social forces in international marketing - Marketing Management

Many of the additional complexities and problems faced by international marketers stem from differences in the cultural and social environment which the marketer faces when marketing internationally. Influences of cultural differences when marketing across national boundaries take on a heightened importance.

We know how people consume, their needs and wants, and the ways in which these wants are satisfied are determined by culture. Culture is the human-made part of environment that includes knowledge, beliefs, morals, laws, customs and other elements acquired by humans in society. Because cultures are so different between countries, cultural forces and factors take on a particular significance for the international marketer. We highlight some of the possible areas or aspects of culture where there may be important differences when marketing in foreign markets:

  • social organization;
  • norms and values;
  • religion;
  • language;
  • education;
  • arts and aesthetics.

Sometimes seemingly relatively small and subtle differences in cultural habits and practices can be important in marketing products in different cultures. For example, attitudes towards body hair differ between even relatively geographically proximate European countries. In the UK for instance, most women shave their under-arm hair, whereas most German women do not. A company like Gillette takes this difference into account in preparing its marketing plans for the different European countries.

Comparison between domestic and international marketing

Comparison between domestic and international marketing

The marketer must understand the implications of these different elements of culture for developing marketing strategies e.g. there may be very different norms and values pertaining to say gender roles, or the use of sex in advertising when marketing in a foreign country. Similarly, religious beliefs may have a significant impact on what is acceptable marketing practice.

It is important to recognize that within any national culture there are often a number of sub-sets of culture. In the UK there is a distinct cultural difference between the north and south, which affects purchasing behaviour – in direct and observable ways, but sometimes in quite subtle ways.

In addition to geographical sub-cultures, cultural sub-sets will often be created by, for example, different racial groups within a country, such as the Chinese in Malaysia and Mexicans in the USA. Sub-cultures within countries have become prime targets for many marketers. In the European Union, the Asian sub-culture, once a neglected area of the market, now represents a major market segment. Such sub-cultures have their own particular marketing needs and represent substantial opportunities for the marketer willing and able to cater for these. There are a number of key concepts relating to culture that become especially important when marketing across national boundaries:

  1. Self reference criterion (SRC). This notion emphasizes the fact that it is all too easy to use all one’s own cultural experience and values when developing and implementing marketing plans in another country. When confronted with a situation or set of facts we assess this situation or facts on the basis of our own knowledge and experiences, usually relating to the culture in which we were raised and with which we are most familiar. This can give rise to unconscious but disastrous mistakes in international marketing strategies.
  2. A simple example is the word ‘pet’. In many societies this word is used in an affectionate manner to describe domestic animals or even, in some societies, loved ones. In France however, the word ‘pet’ means, in certain circumstances, flatulence. Simple cultural differences like this can be significant in developing marketing branding programmes. It is important to isolate differences in cultural values between one’s own culture and the new culture. Inevitably we use our own criterion and culture frameworks to assess markets, but these may not always be appropriate.

    There are many examples of ‘misnamed’ products or unfortunate advertising slogans including:

    ‘Nova’ – Vauxhall’s small car which in Spanish means literally ‘no go’;
    ‘Pschitt’ – a French soft drink brand which needs no explanation;

    The ‘Come alive with Pepsi’ campaign slogan was translated in some countries to ‘Pepsi will bring your relatives back from the grave’.

  3. High and low context culture. Cultures and societies differ in terms of certain aspects of their development. Differences between high and low context cultures have implications for various facets of their cultural elements. An example is in the use of language. Chee and Harris5 suggest that language is a major factor in distinguishing one culture from another. It is not only the formal written and oral structure of the language to which we refer, but also symbolic communication that is termed ‘silent language’. These are ways of communicating in a culture other than through verbal communication. Silent language includes aspects such as time, e.g. the use of deadlines and scheduling appointments and space, e.g. conversation differences in communication. Much communication in high context cultures takes place through silent rather than spoken language. For example, in some cultures arriving late for a meeting is a sign of respect; in others it is a sign of power. Self-reference criteria create more difficulty with silent languages than with spoken ones. Spoken languages are more obvious in their differences, whereas silent languages are much less obvious and yet can significantly impact on marketing.
  4. Cultural sensitivity. Culture is potentially important to all products and services, and hence to marketing plans, but some products are more ‘culturally sensitive’ than others. Food usage, preparation and consumption and overall attitudes towards food in general can differ significantly between cultures and subcultures. For example, attitudes to drinking coffee in Italy and France are still very different to those in the UK. Some products are taboo for social or religious reasons in some cultures. Consumer products are more culturally sensitive than business-to-business products, but even in business-to-business markets there are rules of social and business etiquette that marketers need to appreciate and adhere to when conducting business in other countries. Cultural differences represent one of the most important areas of increased complexity compared to purely domestic marketing. As we have seen, there are other differences and complexities, but as already suggested, the overall concepts and principles of marketing remain the same. However, some of the decision areas involved in planning international marketing also differ from purely domestic ones, and it is to the key steps and decision areas in developing international marketing plans that we now turn our attention.

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