Understanding and Utilizing Cultural Context

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Understanding and Utilizing Cultural Context

Posted by Ira Gross on Apr 17, 2017 6:04:05 PM

In my last post I outlined a framework to improve cross cultural communication in the digital realm utilizing some of the concepts from the field of cultural anthropology.  In this installment, I will focus on the first construct that I discussed in my last post – cultural context. According to Edward Hall, the pioneer of this concept, a high context message indicates a rather implicit meaning, which is ‘either in the physical context or internalized in the person’, and little information is included in the ‘coded, explicit, transmitted part’, and vice versa for a low context message.


What this means in practice is that in some cultures there is much communication that is unspoken and it is assumed the listener understands these non-verbal messages.  These are the high context cultures and include such counties as China, Japan, France and much of the Muslim world.  By contrast, in low context cultures, the spoken and written word conveys the large majority of the communication and as a result things are much more clearly spelled out to the listener.  This duality makes it relatively easy for people to get in step with low context cultures because most the communication they receive contains all the needed content.  On the other hand, getting in step with a high context culture can be much more challenging for an outsider because they lack the cultural awareness to understand and appreciate all of the non-verbal aspects of communication.


These differences also affect culture in unique ways.  High context cultures tend to be more relationship focused and take a longer-term perspective to things.  Low context cultures tend to be more deal oriented and generally view things with a shorter time horizon.  The table below indicates many of salient differences between these two cultural constructs.

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So how does all of this apply to digital marketing?  It is believed that individuals from high context cultures are more sensitive to nuances and advertising.  So when advertising to a high context culture, marketers need to consider the appropriateness of the imagery they use as well as the choice of nearly every word.  Content should feature more local imagery, and be sure to consider the non-verbal ‘clues’ within the imagery.  Colors matter.  So do materials, body parts shown and who actually is in an image.  Fewer words are better than many, as each has a lot of unspoken content associated with it.  A high context culture is going to be more responsive to a more formal and direct style of marketing that shows local cultural awareness.  Things like tone of voice, gestures, the ages of people in an ad matter.  Imagery should show teamwork.  Verbiage should discuss the group/team/company benefits rather than the individual impact.


In low context cultures, by contrast, greater specificity in content is desirable – everything should be clearly spelled-out to the audience.  The communicator needs to be much more explicit as the value of each word is less significant than in high context cultures.  Imagery should be more technical in nature, and can feature individuals rather than groups.  Unspoken items within an image are less significant.


So, is anyone actually using this notion in their digital communications? Yes!  Here Here is an example from a few months ago when I started researching this topic. This example features SAP – the German ERP vendor.  In their US-based homepage, we see a fairly simple design that appears to be content management system (CMS) driven.  The imagery is either technical in nature or features an individual benefiting from using SAP software.  There are few calls to action and the page is clearly meant to be a quick read.


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The Latin American version of this page (shown below), while clearly leveraging the same CMS-fed template, has made some alterations.  Most noticeable is the removal of the two more technical images and their replacement with imaging showing people working together.  The one image of a solo user is touting the mobile accessibility of the SAP platform – important in an area where smart phone usage is often peoples primary device to access the internet.  Additionally, the lower most image block has a call to action about meeting SAP’s clients – an attempt to start building a relationship.


These are relatively simple alterations to the basic home page but show a cultural awareness regarding the local target audience.  We see minor adjustments to imagery and verbiage that make the Latin American homepage appear more suitable, and culturally aware, than would be the case by using the US homepage in this region.


SAP LatinAmerica.png


There are several organizations who are currently deploying this concept currently. Let's take a look at Nestle, the global food brand. In their US home page the multi-panel hero carousel has only one out of five slides featuring people, the one featured below.  No other home page real estate features people in any form. In the blocks below the hero, three out of four feature some type of technical content. The page is overall fairly sparse, with limited calls to action, as expected for a low context audience



By contrast, their Mexican home page (featured below), while leveraging a similar CMS-driven template, has created a very different experience. The hero carousel has images of people in three out of five slides, with a fourth featuring human hands being washed. These are meant to show the firm’s local commitments and to build relationships. Three of four blocks below the hero carousel also feature human imagery. The verbiage is more community oriented than technical and discusses society and health. The fourth block has transformed into a news area with articles featuring content about community activities and investment. These changes well illustrate the transition from a low-context to a higher-context mode of communication.



When marketers understand differing personal, national and regional cultural variances, they can then seek to appropriately align their message within the local culture and hence gain greater influence and be more effective with their marketing endeavors. The actual adjustments necessary to succeed in cross cultural communication and marketing are often not onerous. It is the awareness that these adjustments need to be made that is often lacking. 


While I realize the examples above are from global multi-national corporations, the reality is that the actual implementation of this principle is not difficult. In all of the examples shown, all that was needed to better conform the global site to local tastes was to swap out a few images, change some verbiage and update a few CTA’s. The core template never really changed. Any firm with a CMS-driven website can execute these types of changes.


By understanding cultural context, and identifying where a specific target market fits on the scale, marketers can easily craft a winning communication strategy for their international endeavors. As the adjustments above all illustrate, the tactics are not that difficult. In my next installment, I will discuss how the field of Chronemics can be deployed to equally favorable outcomes.


This is part 2 of our Strategy to Improve Cross-Cultural Communication in the Digital Realm series. Read part one here.

Topics: Digital Marketing, Design, Strategy, Copy, Branding, Cross-Cultural Communication