Effective Global Marketing Understands Culture

Russ Klein
Key Takeaways

What? Culture is what creates the institutional context that marketers must understand as the first step to any business or marketing plan.

So what? There is no more powerful force than culture in shaping perceptions, beliefs, attitudes and, ultimately, behaviors. 

Now what? Focus on understanding the culture of a nation, rather than looking at its market size.

There is no more powerful force than culture in shaping perceptions, beliefs, attitudes and, ultimately, behaviors 

​All of the various tensions around the world regarding nationalism versus globalism will do little to stop the continued connectivity on this network-based planet. In fact, I see no reason why a nationalistic agenda can’t coexist with a globalist perspective. 

Cesar Chavez once said, “Preservation of one’s own culture does not require contempt or disrespect for other cultures.” 

Industry sources estimate that of the 8 million passengers in the air every day, 3 million are international travelers. Thanks to the internet, the many cultures of the world are now meshed inextricably, creating an even more complex mosaic for marketers.

I often refer to certain words, such as “strategy,” as “suitcase words”—words we all carry around whose definition is rarely consistently understood by the many people who use them. “Culture” is a suitcase word. It comes from the Latin term “cultura,” and its import​​ance has been described by many great minds.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the souls of its people.” 

Lev Vygotsky, the founder of cultural-historical psychology, said, “A mind cannot be independent of culture.” 

Albert Camus, known for giving rise to the philosophy of absurdism, said, “Without culture … society is but a jungle.”

French philosopher Jacques Derrida said, “Everything is arranged so that it be this way, this is what is called culture.”

Devdutt Pattanaik, an Indian author and interpreter of ancient scripture, said, “Mythology is a subjective truth. Every culture imagines life a certain way.”

Novelist Joanne Harris said, “If you want to know what’s important to a culture, learn their language.”

And University of Reading professor of evolutionary biology Mark Pagel said, “Having culture means we are the only animal that acquires the rules of its daily living from the accumulated knowledge of our ancestors, rather than from the genes they pass to us.”

There is no more powerful force than culture in shaping perceptions, beliefs, attitudes and, ultimately, behaviors. Culture is one of those zoom-in-zoom-out topics that ranges from organizations and cohorts to towns and nations. I think of culture as comprising unwritten rules that underlie widespread beliefs. If right, that makes it nearly impossible to be certain about insights into any given culture. Culture is what creates the institutional context that marketers must understand as the first step to any business or marketing plan for a brand. Will the world ever become truly borderless resulting in a new world citizenry in which national cultures have effectively converged into one blended, homogenous construct? Not in our lifetime.

A well-written book titled Navigating Global Business: A Cultural Compass​ by Oded Shenkar and Simcha Ronan is a great how-to for any sales or marketing executive with international or global responsibilities. The authors used an initial database of 115 countries over a 13-year period to take the reader slowly from foundational elements to complex maps of “country clusters.” They aptly point out that most globalization literature is aimed at finding common threads across countries to rationalize a more simplified, seemingly more efficient—and let’s not forget tidy—approach to global brand management. But the institutional contexts that distinguish nation-states are deeply rooted. 

As much as many believe there is a culture war going on in the U.S., there is a strong case to be made that values and social norms associated with national identity and the cultural differences between national cultures are significantly larger than the differences within nations—yes, including America. One of my favorite portions of Shenkar and Ronan’s book compares nations based on their tolerance or intolerance for ambiguity. These differences impact trust. In cultures less tolerant of ambiguity, for example Latin America, the typical employee tends to dislike working for foreign managers and is suspicious of them. Moreover, employees are pessimistic regarding the organization’s motives while managers are equally pessimistic about employees’ ambitions and leadership capacities. Conversely, in places where there is high tolerance for ambiguity, as in Eastern Europe, the opposite is the case.

Journalist Thomas Friedman is still correct in his take that the global playing field is becoming more level, but some legacy boundaries and barriers persist. The world today remains divided by cultural fault lines that nothing short of an intergalactic quake could smooth out.

I’m a sucker for well-thought-out organizing principles, and Navigating Global Business provides them superbly. The authors have developed maps reflecting three layers of culture clusters: 11 global clusters, 15 regional clusters and 38 local clusters. These maps make sense of the myriad marketplaces around the world from an anthropological perspective.

Ideally, a brand could appeal to all people, without adaptation, no matter the place around the world. Realistically, it’s far more important to understand the culture of a nation than to look at its market size. A hundred million consumers with the right institutional context may represent a larger addressable and accessible market than one with 1 billion consumers. Don’t let your eyes get bigger than your cultural fit. ​

Russ Klein
As CEO for the American Marketing Association, Russ Klein is charged with the transformation of the AMA to become an essential community for marketers. Klein is a five-time award-winning CMO who has quarterbacked teams for many of the world’s foremost brand names—holding top marketing and advertising posts at Dr Pepper/7UP Companies, Gatorade, 7-Eleven Corporation, Arby’s Restaurant Group and Burger King where he also served as president from 2003-2010.