Cultural Complexity in International Marketing

Parvathy Radhakrishnan
Institute of Management in Kerala

According to AMA (American Marketing Association), international marketing is defined as "The multinational process of planning, and executing the conception, pricing, promotion, and distribution of ideas, goods and services to create exchanges that satisfy individual and organizational objectives." Though international marketing involves all those activities and elements that form a part of domestic marketing, when a business crosses the national borders of a given country it becomes enormously more complex. An entirely new and wide range of legal, political, social, cultural and sociological dimensions enter the picture. While these factors contribute to the complexity of international marketing ,the one that is primarily responsible for the complexity of international marketing is the cultural dynamics of the global markets.

Culture is defined as a set of traditional beliefs and values that are shared and transmitted in a given society .Culture encompasses values, customs, art, moral, laws. Culture is perspective, subjective, cumulative and dynamic. In international marketing , culture is a problematic issue for many marketers since it is inherently nebulous and often difficult to understand. One may violate the cultural norms of another country without being informed of this, and people from different cultures may feel uncomfortable in each other's presence without knowing exactly why. When observing a culture, one must be careful not to over-generalize about traits that one sees. Research in social psychology has suggested a strong tendency for people to perceive an "outgroup" as more homogenous than an "ingroup," even when they knew what members had been assigned to each group purely by chance. When there is often a "grain of truth" to some of the perceived differences, the temptation to over-generalize is often strong. There are often significant individual differences within cultures.

Most of us are accustomed to the cultural variations. For example, within the Muslim tradition, the dog is considered a "dirty" animal, so portraying it as "man's best friend" in an advertisement is counter-productive. Packaging, seen as a reflection of the quality of the "real" product, is considerably more important in Asia than in the U.S., where there is a tendency to focus on the contents which "really count." Many cultures observe significantly greater levels of formality than that typical in the U.S., and Japanese negotiator tend to observe long silent pauses as a speaker's point is considered.

Though the textual material considers several elements of culture, such as the material culture, education, and religion, cultural contents can be viewed from another point involving the areas of:

  • Beliefs. While Americans may attribute success to hard work or skill, it may be attributed to luck or connections in other cultures.
  • Attitudes. Beliefs, feelings, and behavioral intentions may differ. While the American may appreciate getting a bargain in a sale, this may conjure up images of not being able to afford the full price in other cultures.
  • Goals. While "progress" (having new and improved products, for example) is considered a good thing in the U.S., many Japanese parents are concerned that the "wa-pro" leaves their children unable to write the traditional Japanese pictographs.
  • Values. In the U.S., individual uniqueness is generally considered a good thing while in some cultures fitting in with the group is a higher priority. Thus, for example, an American may enjoy wearing relatively innovative clothing, which may be frowned upon in a more collectivistic society.
  • According to a research conducted by Gert Hofstede, a Dutch researcher by interviewing  a large number of IBM executives in various countries, it was found that cultural differences in international marketing tended to center around four key dimensions:

  • Individualism vs. collectivism: To what extent do people believe in individual responsibility and reward rather than having these measures aimed at the larger group? Countries like Indonesia and West Africa rank toward the collectivistic side while U.S., Britain, and the Netherlands rate toward individualism.
  • Power distance: To what extent is there a strong separation of individuals based on rank? Power distance tends to be particularly high in Arab countries and some Latin American ones, while it is more modest in Northern Europe and the U.S.
  • Masculinity vs. femininity: It involves a somewhat more nebulous concept. "Masculine" values involve competition and "conquering" nature by means such as large construction projects, while "feminine" values involve harmony and environmental protection. Japan is one of the more masculine countries, while the Netherlands rank relatively low. The U.S. is close to the middle, slightly toward the masculine side.
  • Uncertainty avoidance: It involves the extent to which a "structured" situation with clear rules is preferred to a more ambiguous one; in general, countries with lower uncertainty avoidance tend to be more tolerant of risk. Japan ranks very high. Few countries are very low in any absolute sense, but relatively speaking, Britain and Hong Kong are lower, and the U.S. is in the lower range of the distribution.

Although Hofstede's original work did not address this, a fifth dimension of long term vs. short term orientation has been proposed. In the U.S., managers like to see quick results, while Japanese managers are known for take a long term view, often accepting long periods before profitability is obtained.

To avoid complexities arising out of culture in international marketing, cultural analysis is very crucial. Cultural analysis takes into account the culture and its orientation, market screening and the choice of the market. It involves:

a) Defining the complexity in the domestic culture context

b) Defining the complexity in foreign culture context

c) Analysis of differences

d) Redefining the problem by analyzing the differences.

Thus it is important for the international marketers to understand the varying cultural dimensions of international business. This can help in adopting and adapting the marketing strategies to the cultural requirements of the country.

Parvathy Radhakrishnan
Institute of Management in Kerala

Source : E-mail March 31, 2005



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