Is Marketing Influenced by Culture?

You may have supposed that marketing is something “general”, something that’s pretty much the same in all countries. According to this point of view, ads in various countries should be remarkably similar, especially when they concern the same type of products. However, it’s not that simple. Cultures sometimes differ so much that it’s impossible to get someone to buy something by referring to values and constructs that are virtually absent in that culture. A dumb, but picturesque example: Just imagine that you’re advertising Coca-Cola in China. You might be tempted to simply recreate the already-existing mold of Coca-Cola advertisement- the well-known Christmas-themed ads that have since long ago become the trademark of Coca-Cola. Now, employing these Christmas ads might not be that smart, because Chinese people generally don’t care about Christmas- they celebrate their own festivities and Western tradition don’t mean much to them.

This was just an example- things are actually much more complex than the simple difference between religious traditions.

In social sciences, it has been repeatedly proven that cultures can be clearly discerned on the continuum individualistic/collectivistic. Individualistic cultures cherish values like personal independence, originality, and personal success. A prototypical example of such a culture is, of course, USA. Other countries that can be included in the Western world are also individualistic, to a certain extent. France or the UK, for instance, are also countries that are highly individualistic.

On the other hand, collectivistic cultures emphasize values like family integrity, group benefits, and ingroup harmony. We’ve already mentioned China, which is, of course, only the most visible example of this type of cultures. But a lot of other Asian countries are also ostensibly collectivistic- Japan, both Koreas, etc. As a matter of fact, it’s completely possible that much more people live in collectivistic cultures than in individualistic ones.

To conclude, the two broad types of culture are quite different from one another, and this can also be seen in the way people define the essence of their being. A person from a collectivistic culture will generally try to describe her essence as being inextricably linked with the group. When we ask her: Who are you? she may say something like: “I am a good student.”, or “ I am a good wife.”. It these answers it’ obvious that the person’s self is immersed in the larger, collective self.

On the other hand, if we were to ask a man from the individualistic culture the same question, we would perhaps get an example like the following: “ I am somebody who wants to succeed. I would like to realize my own potential.”. Here, the relation of the self, of the ego to the wider group phenomena is less prominent than in collectivistic cultures. The whole “American Dream” concept is something rather peculiar to Western society (especially American), and it shows the prototypical definition of success in individualistic cultures.

All this means that people in countries like the USA generally subordinate group goals to their own, individual goals. And this is often visible even in the so-called nucleus of the society- families are often “dismantled” due to this individualistic striving. Simply put, the Western man is much more likely to wake up one day and say: “Honestly I got fed up with this life. Yes, I have a family and all, but I feel like it’s pulling me back all the time. I would like to do something different, to be alone again, I would like to roam the world freely!”

Inversely, individuals in collectivistic cultures tend to subordinate their own, individual goals to the goals of the group. This is sometimes manifested in the apparent lack of dissenting opinions and high levels of conformism. And this really is true because people in Eastern societies value group goals more than they value their own- it is thus not surprising to see them backing down when they are faced with strong social pressure.

We will finish this introduction by another striking, but the rather gloomy difference between these two civilizations. While suicide is a problem in both types of societies, people kill themselves for different reasons with respect to culture type. One important sociologist- Emile Durkheim- analyzed this difference. He came to the conclusion that there are several types of suicides- for our purposes, the distinction between the so-called egoistic and altruistic suicides is the most important.

Egoistic suicides are according to Durkheim, the most extreme consequence of the individualization. Individualization is, of course, something very prominent in almost all cultures that embraced protestant values. Egoistic suicide is a suicide of a hopeless, melancholic man who feels that nobody understands him. He feels excessively alone.

On the other hand, altruistic suicide is something completely different. According to Durkheim, while in the aforementioned type we had an extreme absence of society from an individual’s self, in altruistic suicide we have a total immersion of individual’s self into social and group values. When those values are seemingly irreparably damaged, the person commits suicide to retain pride. But this is not the pride in the Western interpretation- it is the pride of the group, the “social honor”. Samurai warriors often committed this type of suicide- for example, when their master died, it was almost expected from them to follow the example of their master- in other words, to kill themselves. There is an interesting story about the group of ronins* whose master was killed over some political disagreement. Their only purpose in life became to revenge his late master. The challenge was great- they had to storm a well-kept fortress of some high official who knew very well that they were coming. And they were very cunning- they waited and sneaked around for years before they realized their plan. And after anything was finished, guess what they did- did they perhaps try to escape? No, after they avenged their master, they all committed seppuku- or harakiri as it’s sometimes called.

The research

One particular research heralded the path towards casting a light on the differences between cultures (individualistic/collectivistic) in their respective “susceptibility” to different advertisement strategies. It was done by Han Sang-Pil and Sharon Shavitt in 1994, and it is at the same time collaboration of the two types of culture the research revolves around.

In this particular study, Han and Shavitt tried to measure the efficiency of different types of advertisement with respect to the culture type. As a representative of collectivistic culture, they took South Korea, while the USA represented individualistic societies.

First of all, the most important finding of the study was this- Korean magazine ads differed quite a bit from their American counterparts. Content analysis revealed that the Korean style of advertising relies heavily on collectivistic appeals- family values and expectations, group benefits and goals, and ingroup relations. On the other hand, companies in the USA are trying to persuade their potential customers to buy their product by referring to values like- independence, self-reliance and “egoistic” hedonism, self-realization and self-improvement.

For example, an ad for the exact same product would sound very much different in these two countries. Let’s say that you’re trying to sell a skin lotion. In America, you would have the most chances to succeed if you stick to this formula: “ This skin lotion will make you look good. You will look better than ever!”.

In Korea, you’d be better off with a statement like this: “ Use this skin lotion! Make your partner and family happier simply by looking good!”, or something in that direction.

Of course, you have to take everything we’ve said so far with reserve. Types of products you can buy are practically innumerable- Han and Shavitt classified all products in two broad groups- shared and personal products. They found that both Korean and American ads score pretty high on individualistic values, at least when the product is personal. But even in this situation, Koreans have a somewhat more prominent tendency to include collectivistic values even in ads that concern solely personal products (like skin lotion, for example). Inversely, Americans tend to refer to individualistic values even when they advertise shared products (such as food). This is the essence of the study we’ve described in this text. The world isn’t black and white- Koreans also cherish individualistic values, same as Americans cherish collectivistic ones, but they differ in the emphasis they put on particular values.

Persuasion in Asian cultures

As you’ve probably seen by now, one must be very careful about the choice of persuasion techniques, especially when there are cultural discrepancies between the buyer and the seller. We’ll now give a brief description of the way Asian people generally communicate and will try to give some advice on how to communicate in a friendly and culturally-respectful way to most Asians (especially to Japanese, but also to Chinese and Korean people ).

  1. Avoid touching– the Western society is rather diverse in this aspect- in some regions, like the Mediterranean, people generally sit very close to each other, and frequently kiss, hug, and touch. People from Latin America are also known for this predilection of theirs. On the other hand, people in Eastern Asia are much more reserved in this aspect. They generally don’t touch one another (especially in Japan), and they even might seem cold and distant to a typical American or European.
  2. Bow instead of a handshake- this is a logical consequence of the first rule. When they don’t insist otherwise, it’ always better to just bow to your new Japanese or Korean acquaintances. Note that the length of the bow (how much you bend) is a sign of hierarchy- the more you bow, the more you give veneration to your Asian friend (or business partner).
  3. Speak quietly– speaking in a loud and harsh manner is regarded as barbaric and impertinent in Asian cultures. Of course, if the atmosphere is relaxed and laid back a bit, you can put the volume up a bit, but generally speaking, it’s better to stay quiet. Especially if you’re at a business meeting, or when you first meet a person.
  4. 4. Learn a few words of their language– let’s be honest some Americans think that the whole world should speak English. Of course, English is very nice and all, but by learning a few words (or phrases) of some foreign language, you’re showing that you respect that culture and that you are eager to learn. This is always a good thing, not only when speaking with Japanese or Korean people.



*Ronins are samurais without a master- “wanderers” in direct translation. Even here we can see the essence of collectivistic culture. A samurai without his master is lost, he wanders and drifts the earth without any purpose.

Han, S. & Shavitt, S. (1994). Persuasion and Culture: Advertising Appeals in Individualistic and Collectivistic Cultures. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol.30, pp. 326- 350. Doi:

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