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How might we better understand cultural diversity in our communications plans?

With Sarah Cowie

How might we better understand cultural diversity in our communications plans?

Regardless of where we live, we maintain a small amount of our own cultural frameworks that will inevitably influence our perspectives on the world and how we interpret the information we receive.  Sarah Cowie, a psychologist at the Auckland University Behaviour Lab takes a look at this topic in more detail, with some interesting insights on the concept of thinking of yourself as an individual or part of a collective. Looking at cultural diversity and incorporating it in out communications.

Culture is the lens through which we view the world

Culture shapes how consumers react to in-store displays, prices, advertising, and service. The tendency to put the needs of one’s community ahead of individual needs (collectivism), or to prioritise one’s own needs over those of the community (individualism), is an aspect of culture that impacts how the consumer brain perceives value in products and services, and hence how consumers decide to spend.

Individualist vs Collectivist

The way our brains attend to information means collectivist and individualist brains may form different impressions of the same experience. The collectivist brain pays close attention to relationships between things, whereas the individualist brain focuses more on the things themselves.

If the same product is sold at both a discount and a high-end store, the collectivist brain would prefer to purchase from the high-end store, since the context adds to one’s sense of value. The individualist brain, focused on the product itself, would not care.

Similarly, the collectivist consumers’ beliefs about the fat content of a food product are influenced by the healthiness of other products on the same shelf. In contrast, individualist consumers make the same judgements about fat content regardless of whether the product shares a shelf with other high- or low-fat foods. The collectivist brain’s impressions about products, services, and brands will often be affected by factors the individualist brain overlooks.

Culturally Specific Branding

The use of culturally specific branding thus requires careful attention to how the messaging conveyed by the branding aligns with the values of the company itself. For example, one study showed Māori consumers’ impressions of brand authenticity depended not on the cultural relevance of the branding itself, but on whether the values reflected in the branding matched the values of the company itself.

Culturally inclusive business practices require careful attention to how all aspects of the customer experience might contribute to one’s impression. Does the branding, advertising, and in-store experience reflect the same core values and messaging?

Recommendations and Advice

Collectivist brains tend to have more memories involving others, while individualist brains have more memories centered around themselves. Recommendations and advice from staff and other consumers are critical in purchasing decisions made by collectivist brains because they build a sense of trust.

In contrast, individualist brains rely less on input from others, often deciding whether or not to buy on the basis of their own emotions. This is one reason business models that are successful in individualist countries often flounder in collectivist ones – indeed, although eBay eventually ceased to operate in China, a competitor whose website included a direct-messaging service to allow suppliers and customers to build relationships remains in business today. Offering options to buy with little direct interaction, or to receive advice from staff and other consumers, will attract both individualist and collectivist consumers.

Situational Factors

Our brains are not irreversibly individualist or collectivist – situational factors like language can make us more likely to make decisions in a collectivist or individualist way. Nevertheless, things that are relevant to an individual’s main culture are more likely to be remembered, and hence more likely to influence the impressions we form about a product, service, or brand.

Consumers prefer advertisements with themes matching their own cultural values – for the individualist brain, information about price and unique benefits for the individual, while for the collectivist brain, more subtle messaging about values like trust and generosity.

Impressions of Value

This difference in the way our brain forms impressions of value is particularly apparent in decisions about products and services that are shared or used socially, such as cameras and laundry detergents.

Culturally driven differences in how our brains perceive value means consumers can often come out of the same shopping experience with very different impressions. Keeping in mind that our own brain’s way of calculating value is not the same as everyone else’s will create new opportunities to attract a culturally diverse customer base.

Dr Sarah Cowie is a Senior Lecturer in psychology at the University of Auckland. Sarah is the Director of the Behaviour Lab, a research group that looks at how decisions and actions are influenced by experience and by the world around us.

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