Cultural Differences & International Digital Marketing

Cultural DifferencesPepsi’s Blue Blunder

The global cola powerhouse Pepsi isn’t immune to an international blunder. The company lost its dominant market share to Coke in South East Asia when it changed the colour of its vending machines and drinks coolers from the deep “regal” blue to the lighter “ice” blue.

The change in colours wouldn’t raise eyebrows in the United Kingdom, Europe or United States, but Pepsi failed to take into account the cultural meaning of the new colour choice. In the South East Asian region, light blue is associated with death and mourning: not the sort of thing with which Pepsi wanted to associate their products!

This brings us to the next thing to consider when planning your international digital marketing campaigns- cultural differences. Cultural differences mean that you shouldn’t use the same voice, message, colours, layout and style across multiple cultures and expect the same results.

Different cultures give different meanings to things, so red may mean one thing in one country and another in another. Or as in the example above, light blue could be a good thing in some countries and bad in another. There may be certain rules and etiquette to follow when speaking to some audiences that simply aren’t important when speaking to others.

This all sounds like a very difficult thing to quantify and keep track of. Imagine having to know the cultural differences between every country you are targeting? Simple if you’re only targeting a few, but hugely complicated if you’re targeting ten, twenty, fifty or a hundred!

Luckily, there’s a great tool you can use: Geert Hofstede’s Culture Dimensions theory.


Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions

Developed by Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede, Hofstede’s Cultural Dimension theory is a framework that describes how the culture of a society or country affects the values and behaviours of its members.

The dimensions of the national cultures are:

  • Power distance index (PDI): This is a metric of how much the less powerful members of the society accept that the power in their organisation is distributed unevenly. In a society in which the PDI is low, its members are more likely to question authority and push to distribute the power evenly. However in a society in which the PDI is high, the members are generally more accepting of the rule by others.
  • Individualism vs. collectivism (IDV): This index looks at the level to which a society’s members are integrated into groups. Those in individualist cultures often think about the self, the “I” but those in collectivist cultures think about the group, or the “we”.
  • Uncertainty avoidance index (UAI): This dimension looks at a society’s tolerance for uncertainty. It looks at whether people in a society embrace something that is uncertain, or avoid it and stick to the status quo. Stiff codes of behaviour are common in societies that have a high UAI score and those that have a low score often impose fewer regulations.
  • Masculinity vs. femininity (MAS): Rather than meaning a direct link to male or female populations, the MAS score looks at whether the society has a preference for achievement, assertiveness, material reward for success and heroism- perhaps more masculine traits. Lower scoring societies often value cooperation, caring for the weak and quality of life.
  • Long-term orientation vs. short-term orientation (LTO): This score looks at whether a society’s members think about the long term or the short term. Lower LTO scoring countries value steadfastness but high LTO scorers view adaption and problem-solving as important.
  • Indulgence vs. restraint (IND): This looks at whether a society’s members indulge in the simple joys of life or are more restrained.

All of these dimensions add up to a clear picture of the values, goals and behaviours of the audience members in each country. Let’s look at some examples.

First, let’s look at China. Here are China’s scores, according to Geert Hofstede:

  • Power Distance Index (PDI): 80
  • Individualism vs. collectivism (IDV): 20
  • Masculinity vs. femininity (MAS): 66
  • Uncertainty avoidance index (UAI): 30
  • Long-term orientation vs. short-term orientation (LTO): 87
  • Indulgence vs. restraint (IND): 24

China has a high PDI score, so its population is generally accepting of rule by others. These cultures appreciate national pride, so displaying colours of the national flag as well as known national symbols, in a positive light can be a good move. Order is also appreciated, which is key when setting up the navigation for your website. High PDI cultures also appreciate formal language when marketing to other businesses, or older members of public. Politeness is also key. It is also a good idea to feature endorsements by those who are trusted in the industry in your advertising and on your website.

China’s IDV score is a low 20, meaning it focuses on collectivism and the group, rather than individuality. Collectivist cultures focus on long term relationships, groups and also trust and privacy. With a MAS score of 66, China is a masculine culture. They appreciate the ability to explore (use this when setting up your websites – interactivity is key), games and rich media.

With a low UAI score, China is an uncertainty accepting culture, so they like to be told straight. Tying into the masculine culture too, Chinese people appreciate being able to find out the relevant information.

China is highly long-term orientated, scoring an LTO of 87. Therefore it is key that in your advertising and on your website, you highlight the long-term benefits of your products or services, and focus on building long-term relationships. A good CRM is key.

With an IND score of 24, the Chinese culture is very restraint focused, placing value in structure, discipline and formality. It’s also worth making efforts to highlight the low cost of your products too.

Let’s compare that to the United States of America. Here are the scores for the USA according to Geert Hofstede:

  • Power Distance Index (PDI): 40
  • Individualism vs. collectivism (IDV): 91
  • Masculinity vs. femininity (MAS): 62
  • Uncertainty avoidance index (UAI): 46
  • Long-term orientation vs. short-term orientation (LTO): 26
  • Indulgence vs. restraint (IND): 60

Unlike China, the United States has a fairly low Power Distance Index, sitting at 40. When targeting people from the U.S. you should be transparent and allow them to have the option to search for what they want, rather than offering a hierarchal navigation system. This is also a highly individualistic culture (which makes sense when we think of the idea of the American Dream) so be sure to reward users through loyalty schemes if possible, allow them to share their uniqueness, appreciate their uniqueness and give them opportunities to stand out.

A fairly masculine culture, those in the United States appreciate rich media, games and exploration. The game playing can link into the individualistic need to win and be rewarded. With a UAI score of 46, those in the U.S. are fairly accepting of uncertainty so use straight forward language, and allow them to take risks.

With a LTO score of 16, this is a very short term orientated culture, so offer instant gratification, statistics and ratings to show the short term benefits. Be sure to stay in touch with social trends too, and use them in your marketing material.

An IND score of 60 shows that the United States’ culture is an indulgent culture, so U.S. citizens appreciated fun and personal freedom. Try to stay clear of using stereotypes in your marketing.

And the final example we will look at is just South of the United States: Mexico.

  • Power Distance Index (PDI): 81
  • Individualism vs. collectivism (IDV): 30
  • Masculinity vs. femininity (MAS): 69
  • Uncertainty avoidance index (UAI): 84
  • Long-term orientation vs. short-term orientation (LTO): 24
  • Indulgence vs. restraint (IND):

Unlike the United States, Mexico has a high Power Distance Index at 81 so order everything on your website, be polite, use expert endorsements and show national pride in your marketing material. Like (but not as low in score as) China, Mexico is a collectivist culture, with an IDV score of 30, so morality is key (be careful not to offend). Use group photos (of Mexican people) when showing lifestyle photography.

With a similar MAS score to the United States, Mexico is fairly masculine (scoring 69) so Mexican people are likely to respond to exploration and rich media. But unlike the United States, Mexico has a high UAI score, making this an uncertainty avoiding culture. Therefore, your website and marketing messages should be simple and should allow them to find all the relevant information needed to help put minds at ease.

A low LTO score (24) and a high IND score (97) for Mexico puts them in a similar bracket to the United States on these dimensions. As a short term orientated culture, Mexicans are more likely to respond if you offer instant gratification, statistics and ratings to show the short term benefits. Also offer personal freedom and fun in your marketing.

A Japanese Gamble

As we’ve already seen, huge global brands aren’t immune from making international marketing mistakes and Procter & Gamble are no exception.

When the company started selling its Pampers brand nappies in Japan (or diapers to my readers from across the Atlantic) the advertising featured a stork delivering a baby. This is a commonly known reference in Western culture, but the adverts failed to have the same impact in the new market. Following audience research, it became clear that consumers found the image to be confusing.

Another case of advertising being received badly in Japan again happened to Procter & Gamble. A popular advert in Europe showed a woman bathing. Her husband then walked in and touched her. This was of course not considered to be inappropriate in Western cultures, however in Japan this was seen to be an invasion of privacy and of poor taste.

Stay on top of cultural differences

As we looked at Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, it shows that there is data that can at least influence our decisions when it comes to website and marketing content. The first thing to be aware of is whether we are likely to cause offence. Some cultures may be more open to fun and games than others, some may put more emphasis on morals and religion than others and some may respect elders more than others.

It is also worth researching into the specific cultural differences. There may be some very specific things that offend members of a particular culture, or simply don’t work on them in terms of marketing.

The overall theme of this is that you can’t use a blanket approach. It may work across certain cultures that have similarities, but it doesn’t often work over multiple different cultures.

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