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The need for culture-sensitive marketing
March 06, 2009
In the early 1990s, a pioneering CEO, who was not marketing-trained, while briefing the agency on a press advertisement, said innocently, "Let us first list all the points we want to say about our brand in the ad.
When we pointed this out to this CEO, he jocularly quipped: "Single-mindedness is the creation of lazy advertising people. Consumers buy a cache of benefits and we need advertising to reflect this." We obeyed him because he was the client and we built a brand that, today, stands tall in the Indian market!
A decade and half of Indian liberalisation and the entry of global brands into this country seem to establish that much of marketing theory published in books and taught in management schools needs to be re-evaluated when it comes to markets like India.
Is this a case of stage of market development or is this a deeper reflection of cultural differences that need to be recognised and taken into consideration? Is culture-neutral marketing and marketing principles a possibility or is it the new marketing myopia?
Marketing gurus from the west have built their theories based on the belief that consumers, where ever they are, behave the same. After all, consumer needs, wants and desires are universal - and human motivations are the same. So why should marketing to consumers across the globe be different?
But consider the following. Paul Harris, a famous sociologist said, "Consumers globalise, people don't." Brands are built not only in consumers' minds, but also in the hearts and minds of people.
Gert Hofstede, in his seminal work on culture, defined the five dimensions of culture - power distance, individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance and long-term orientation. He evaluated different nations and religions on these parameters. India scores 80 on power distance while the US scores only 40. On individualism, India scores only 40 while the US is at 90!
Clearly India is an affiliative yet hierarchal culture, while the US is more equal yet individualistic. Christians score 80 on the uncertainty avoidance index while Hindus are more comfortable with risk at 38. On power distance, Hindus are at a high 75 while Christians are more equal at 30. How does all this affect marketing and consumer behaviour?
David Ogilvy, many years ago, postulated that popularity can never be a positioning platform. No one buys a product because others like it, he asserted. In an individualistic culture, this is very true.
However in an affiliative culture like ours, this may not be a non-option. At one level, there is comfort in numbers -- just because so many people like it, it must be good. At another level, popularity also helps in giving a sense of belonging and inclusiveness- and so, not surprisingly, it works in a society like India.
Similarly, marketing based in a culture of equality is comfortable with 'democratic' brands - brands that can both functionally and emotionally cater to people across socio-economic classes. Thus, brands can own categories and stretch across the economic demographics of the culture quite comfortably.
A third interesting dimension of cultural difference is how brand loyalty gets built. In his book, Geography of Thought, Richard Nesbitt talks about the fundamental 'distrusting' nature of Eastern culture and that is very true of India too. Earning trust and thus respect is the most important value in any business transaction.
Much marketing that has evolved in India reflects the culture because most marketers in India have been Indians and so unconsciously adapted western principles for Indian needs.
Something worth thinking about.
The writer is Country Head, Discovery and Planning, Ogilvy and Mather, India.
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