"Cultural" marketing or cross-cultural marketing are hot topics in today's globalized marketplace. Even in the US where several states are about to gain a Spanish speaking majority, cultural marketing is big talk.
With all the gab it's really important to step back and ask the question, "what is culture?" I can tell you that most of my college and grad-school professors even got this one very wrong. The problem with defining culture is almost anything you point to and say "that's culture" just isn't.
Here's my working definition of culture (it has served me well): Culture is a shared set of underlying values and beliefs both conscious and unconscious that affect behavior.
That's it. Culture is not a country, or a language, or a race, or a set of artifacts. These things are the footprints of culture. Let's take a look at a few things:
Country / Nationality: Can you say there is a US culture? Sure, but there are so many sub-cultures that it is hard to point to what people in the US hold as common beliefs. Some ethnocentric Europeans like to claim that the US has never developed a culture (probably while they listen to rock and roll, wear jeans, eat a Big Mac, and vote for elected officials).
But the US is a Hodge-Podge of cultures so maybe it would be more helpful to look at a more homogeneous nation. Well if I could find one on the globe we could look at it. Even China whose culture is ministered by the state has very different regions, ethnicities, languages, forms of dress and definitely sub-cultures.
Language: Language is closely tied to culture, because it is intimately tied to the way we think and make sense of the world. Native Japanese speakers will have a very different sense of some things than native speakers of Romanian. Learning language actually affects the way our brain is constructed.
Language may also reflect cultural norms and rules. For example, in french there are polite and familiar forms of the word "you" as well as verbs. Using familiar speech with a stranger is rude and extremely insulting. we don't have a concept like that in English. Likewise Japanese has a complicated set of levels of formality and politeness. These linguistic rules express cultural ideas about societal behavior that probably do not exist anywhere else.
With the influx of Spanish speakers to the United States, many marketers talk about "Latino" marketing. I think this can be tricky because the Spanish speakers come from many different cultures. Surely Cuban, Colombian, Puerto rican, and Mexican cultures are different despite linguistic commonality. A friend of mine from Puerto Rico told me about the difficulty he had with Spanish speakers from some other countries because the dialects were so different.
OK, if I haven't established how difficult pinpointing a culture can be, hold on:
Each individual is more or less a collection of overlapping cultures. However, the cultures don't perfectly overlap because each individual may reject certain components from one culture and accept others. Every person is really unique.
I live in Boston, but I'm not a native. I accept some things I identify as Bostonian and not others. I am a citizen of the United States. I am primarily Caucasian but have Passamaquoddy and Pawnee American Indian roots on both sides of my family. I have studied a traditional Japanese martial art for 10 years. I identify my religion primarily as Buddhist, but draw teachings from many beliefs. I grew up in a small town in Maine, but like living near the city. I married a woman who is Filipina, whose parents are from different regions of the Philippines that have different languages. And this is just beginning to scratch the surface of where I draw cultural influences.
The thing is, I am not in any way uniquely complex. Most people are at least as complex as I if not more.
So is culture an entirely useless concept for marketing?
Is culture so complex, individual, and unfathomable as to be useless from a marketing perspective? It can be if done wrong.
It's about levels of abstraction. It may be useless to say something like, "Latinos prefer the flavor of pineapple to the flavor of cola." However, you might say something like, "in Cuba there are no cola drinks, and in other Latin American countries fruit flavored drinks outsell cola drinks, pineapple outperforms most other fruit drinks in many of these markets." That is a much more useful piece of information if you are trying to penetrate these markets in the US with a soft drink.
In China Victoria's Secret failed because the idea of spending a lot of money on undergarments was very foreign, and in general the Chinese spend less money on luxuries that are not seen by the general public. US companies that are marketing food products in China have to modify many flavors because the diets their are so different.
In the US when most people get "Chinese food" takeout they are not eating anything that resembles a native Chinese diet. Most Chinese food in the US (save for a few places in various Chinatown's) has been modified to be palatable for those used to the average American diet. I do have friends that love pickled jellyfish and chicken feet and go to Chinatown regularly to get these delicacies.
Marketers that are expanding into new foreign markets are smart to hire local experts to work on campaigns. Everything from packaging colors, product choices, slogans, etc... should be reviewed by local staff.
I remember an unintentionally humorous propaganda campaign run by the Iraqi army during the first Gulf War. There was an Iraqi propaganda radio broadcast by an operative that was meant to emotionally deter US troops. The broadcast declared that while the troops were in Saudi Arabia, their wives were being seduced by movie stars like Bart Simpson.
Research is good.
J D Moore - Marketing Comet