Cultural Imprinting and Marketers

Back in 1984, there was a song by Band Aid to raise money for relief of a devastating famine in Ethiopia. It came out in November of that year, and it was called “Do They Know It’s Christmas?

The intentions were good, of course – many top-flight pop and rock singers and musicians contributed their time and voices to the effort, which sold more than 3.5 million copies in Britain. The thing is, though, that while there are many Christians in Ethiopia (some 63%), the rest of the country is predominantly Muslim. And during that time of famine, they probably didn’t know, or care, that it was Christmas.

The single was aimed at raising money among westerners, of course, and not Ethiopians, Christian or otherwise. But the song was the product of a western sensibility, and its title reflected a western bias (not in a bad sense) that made its well-meaning sentiments a little bit ridiculous.

But then, for the British, a song released at Christmas is a very important thing. There’s a tradition there of betting on what song will be number one during Christmas week (these things still matter in Great Britain). So for Bob Geldoff and Midge Ure, who wrote the song, and for Ure, who produced it, the Christmas timing of their record was important, and the Christmas theme was important for their listeners and buyers.

Still, there was a bit of mockery at their good intentions. They ignored the subtle cultural touchstones of one country – the one their song benefited – to appeal to the culture of their own.

You can see how tricky cultural things can be.

Culture Coding and Countries

Clotaire Rapaille’s incisive book The Culture Code has a lot to say on the subject. In it, this French-born marketing expert (who has lived and worked in America for most of his adult life), unlocks the secrets of a country’s underlying cultural imprint. For example, the cultural code for America is DREAM, while that of France is IDEA. There’s truth behind these code words (and sometimes they actually align with the cliché we hold concerning a particular country).

One of the most important things that I’ve taken from Rapaille’s findings is the need to be vigilant in how I look at the world, and how I regard the people around me. As a marketer myself, and someone who works with other entrepreneurs and authors to help them understand and target better their audience, I am careful to try to gauge a person’s attitudes and personal choices so they can understand those of others.

I make mistakes, of course, like anyone else. But once I can figure out that someone is an extrovert, introvert, a methodical or spontaneous or judging or feeling kind of person, then I can approach him or her in the proper way.

The same kind of thing applies to people of different countries, through our personas. Although someone from another country is also, in his or her way, an extrovert, introvert, methodical or spontaneous type of person, that person also carries the imprint of the society of the country in which he or she was raised. There are layers upon layers of things to consider when trying to figure out an audience of individuals, and a world of people from different cultures.

The point is, though, that I’m aware of these differences (and keep getting reminded of them). So I’m on the way to avoiding some stupid mistakes. Or at least making fewer of them.

I recently returned from a month in Malaysia, where I worked among people from different cultural backgrounds. I found myself sometimes imposing my own cultural point of view on some of the locals and sometimes found myself being brought up short with the understanding that my way wasn’t always the correct way.

Has this happened to you? When traveling, or even with meeting someone from a different culture, have you done something that displayed your own cultural imprinting at the expense of someone else’s? I’d love to know – we can all learn from each other, no matter what country we grew up in.


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3 Responses to “Cultural Imprinting and Marketers”

  1. Nima Heydarian September 23, 2011 at 7:50 pm #

    Great post. The culture code is indeed one of my favorite books (top 3 for sure).

    I can’t remember an exact time that I acted in a way to cause misunderstanding in another culture but being Iranian living in U.S. I’ve definitely misunderstood other people’s gestures by comparing them to the Iranian culture (unconsciously)  

  2. Enin Serdna October 7, 2011 at 9:09 am #

    I remember this from my trainees before: When they take calls I would notice that they are not used to setting expectations when putting someone on hold and managing their time away from the phone.

    It’s sad that we were used to the same treatment here on most if not all gov’t institutions and private companies making us wait without explanations whatoever. This easily get schedules messed up. 
    This brings me to recall of Cultural Sensitization/Cultural Awareness that I have added to our syllabus in training back then. My trainees were not exactly down with being on time and they all thought I’m not a Filipino since I’m strict with time and managing it. It’s one of the best practices I picked up from being in the business for years. 

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