The Impact Of Culture On Branding

Martin RollMay 8, 20096 min

Culture is the cumulative concept that encompasses knowledge, belief, customs, practices and any other habits acquired by people as members of society.

A culture operates primarily by setting loose boundaries for individual behavior. Culture, in effect, provides the framework within which individuals and households function. A major consequence of culture is its impact on consumption patterns of individuals and institutions. Depending on the underlying cultural philosophy consumers tend to follow certain consumption patterns. Successful brands have been able to adopt their branding strategies in line with this dominant cultural philosophy and weave their brands into the cultural fiber.

One of the underlying premises of branding is its ability to reduce customers’ search cost and perceived risk by standardization of images, messages, communications, attributes and features. As such brands generally strive to maintain their defining brand identity, brand personality, brand images and brand elements across markets. This standardization which forms the fundamental building block of a brand itself poses the first challenge in cross cultural situations. Many a times, brands will need to adopt their offerings to different cultures and this violates the standardization principle. Therefore deftly handling the standardization and adoption issue becomes extremely crucial.

One of the biggest implications of globalization for brands seeking to expand to foreign shores is the task of balancing standardization with customization. When some of the world’s biggest brands expand beyond their home markets, they are tempted to repeat their tried and tested formula in the new market as well. In fact this has been the path followed by many brands. The assumption in such a case is that customers would be too eager to consume the great brand because of its authenticity, heritage and associations. But this tendency is gradually changing as global companies are learning about the unique needs of the customers in different markets along with the pressures of lifestyle, economic and cultural conditions.

Consider the success of global brands in the Indian market.

One of the booming economies in Asia, India offers tremendous opportunities to global companies. A brief look at the Indian landscape would prove why – an estimated 1.2 million affluent households that is expanding at 20% a year, 40 million middle income households (earnings of US$20,000 to US$45,000 adjusted for PPP) growing at 10% a year, more than 110 million households with earnings of US$7,500 to US$20,000 (adjusted for PPP) and more than 70% of the population below the age of 36. It is no wonder then, that global brands are making a bee line to the Indian market to grab a share of the growing pie. This alluring face of the Indian business landscape has another facet to it and that is the highly discerning and demanding customers. In spite of the booming economy and the increasing disposable income, Indian consumers are very cautious and clear in their priorities. Consumers are still not ready to splurge on branded goods at premium prices. Added to this is a growing number of Indian brands that offer superior quality at affordable prices. In such a scenario, global brands can win only if they attune themselves to the local conditions.

Unilever is a classic example of a global brand which has pioneered serving the locals with products that address the local sensitivities. Unilever’s Indian subsidiary Hindustan Level Limited (HLL) has been the leader in recognizing the tremendous opportunity lying at the bottom of the pyramid – customer base that aspires to consume products but in smaller quantities and at lesser prices. HLL literally invented the shampoo sachets – small plastic packets of shampoo for as less as INR 1 (USD0.022). This became such a rage among the rural consumers that many other brands started offering products such as detergent, coffee and tea powder, coconut oil and tooth paste in sachets. Even though the unit price was higher, rural consumers were able to afford to purchase the smaller quantity at their convenience.

Another example is the mobile brand Nokia. Nokia also recognized the growing importance of rural customers in the Indian mobile telephone market which grew from a mere 300,000 subscribers in 1996 to a whopping 55 million subscribers in 2004. Nokia introduced its dust-resistant keypad, antislip grip and an inbuilt flash light. These features, albeit small, appealed to a specific target of truck drivers initially and then to a broader segment of rural consumers. These features endeared Nokia to the Indian consumer as Nokia displayed a genuine commitment in responding to local customer needs.

Disneyland launched Euro Disney and maintained its standard tried and tested formula with the assumption that customers would seek the authentic Disney experience. But shortly into the launch, Euro Disney was declared a failure. Of the many reasons that were attributed to Euro Disney’s failure, the one that stood out clearly was Euro Disney’s lack of localizing the brand experience. Euro Disney followed the brand policies to the word – English-only instructions, no wine consumption on park grounds, high ticket prices, and standardized merchandise and food items. This resulted in wide spread dissatisfaction among the customers. But Euro Disney was just following the golden rule of branding – consistency in its brand elements.

These examples illustrate the consequences of culture on brands. In all the three examples, the brands were global brands with operations in multiple markets. Nokia and Unilever recognized the different customer needs and adopted the brand to the preferences of customers. Disney on the other hand followed the classic branding rule of maintaining consistency across markets. As can be seen from these examples, cultural differences mandate that brands be sensitive to different cultural facets. Further, these cases offer some very important points that should be fully appreciated by any brand manager that aspires to be successful in cross cultural settings.

1. Cultural Differences Impact Branding: Cultural differences are indeed a major factor that has an impact on the success or failure of a brand. As brands enter different cultures, it becomes imperative for them to carefully tread the standardization-customization continuum wherein they not only manage to retain the inherent brand identity which is the very reason for their acceptance across markets, but also adopt the brand elements (images, advertising, channels, and others) to appeal to the local tastes and preference of customers.

2. Weave The Brand Into The Cultural Fiber: The increasing popularity of the Internet offers brands a very powerful tool to involve customers and bring the brands closer to the local culture by providing them a platform to interact with the brand in their (customer’s ) terms. Creation of online discussion groups, and online brand communities is a firm step towards co-creating brand value with the customers. By weaving the brand essence into the societal fiber, brands can leverage cultural differences to their advantage

3. Understand The Consumption Patterns: Individualistic and collectivistic cultures tend to be the two ends of a continuum. Individualistic cultures support customers to make consumption decisions based on their personal choice, at an individual level. On the other hand, collectivistic cultures support customers to make consumption decisions on a group level (family, extended family, network of friends and even community).

These differences hold the key to many a branding strategy when entering new markets. Even though globalization and integrated markets offer brands a very lucrative deal in terms of untapped market potential, greater number of customers, and broader reach, it also poses certain challenges such as cultural differences and the resulting consumption patterns. To maximize the opportunities brands should be sensitive to the cultural subtleties and adopt accordingly. Cultural differences can be morphed from a challenge to an opportunity when brands learn from the many best practices in the industry and adopt their branding strategies to adequately reflect the consumer preferences.

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Martin Roll


  • Bhavana Jaiswal

    May 20, 2009 at 3:49 am

    Lovely piece. You are absolutely spot on regarding Unilever India. They have indeed revolutionized marketing in India, and you can safely credit them with making Indian companies take the rural markets seriously. Today, amidst global expenditure slowdown, Indian rural markets remain attractive to marketers since they are still growing.

    While I agree with the concept of adapting to local markets, there are also cases of Brands actually introducing new habits into the local culture. A classic example is the onslaught of Japanese car-makers in the American automotive market. It is very widely known that American car-makers did not consider fuel efficiency to be an important aspect. The Japanese car-makers made their inroads into the American market and changed all this. Today, with soaring fuel costs, the American consumer considers fuel-efficiency to be an important aspect while purchasing a car!

  • Bhavana Jaiswal

    May 20, 2009 at 3:56 am

    While I’m at it, another classic example from the Indian market: Kellogg’s. When it first made inroads into the Indian market, it flopped. Reason – Indians value their hot, freshly-prepared breakfast. An Indian mother would literally consider it to be a crime to send her kid to school without a glass of hot milk. Kellogg’s on the other hand was marketing something which was totally opposite to this – ready-to-eat corn flakes, to be eaten in COLD milk. If you’d pour hot milk on it, it’d turn soggy. Result – the brand flopped.

    Thankfully, Kelloggs realized their error and re-entered the market later, this time, better-prepared. They had re-engineered their flakes to be crunchy even in hot milk. And they marketed it to the right audience – urban, dual-income households – where breakfast time was usually chaotic, with the mother being pressed for time. This time, it worked.

    The example just goes to show that a failure need not necessarily spell death for a brand. Realizing your error and rectifying it in good time can still work wonders for your brand.

  • John Mann

    August 20, 2009 at 5:37 am

    Great piece, re Euro Disney, but how much do you think the launch failure was down to ‘standardised branding’ or simply that Disney is American, and the French, (possibly the majority of Europeans), resent the Americanisation of Europe, or the world? So, even if they’d re-branded Donald Duck to La Donald Canard, and allowed wine to be sold in cafe’s and restaurants, would it have worked. I remember going to Euro Disney in ’96 and hating it – as everyone spoke French, (I’m English), and the kids working there were so typically French, e.g., arrogant, non-bothered, slow and almost boarding on the aggressive if you asked them anything in English or pigeon-French.

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