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Recent history and the Internet have opened up some unprecedented global marketing possibilities. The ability to reach a global market on the Web has highlighted some interesting challenges for user-centered design as well. One largely anticipated outcome of globalization was convergence. Levitt (1983) predicted that shared experience arising from new technology would overshadow local values and lead consumers around the globe to desire similar standardized, high-quality, low-cost products. By extension, he suggested that the global community would converge on a shared taste and lifestyle.

Today, marketing behavior analysis indicates that the expectation of homogenization is misguided. Instead, it appears that McLuhan (1964) was right: technological innovations are merely the extension of the self. They allow us to do more of what we already do (and like to do) more efficiently. But their existence does not remold our outlook or values. The influence of local culture will not simply disappear with the adoption of the Internet

The cost of failing to recognize the influence of local culture on marketing behavior is well documented. Large, multinational firms who centralize resources to increase efficiency suffered as a result. Initiating global business practice standardization in 2002, Coca Cola experienced declining profits. Today, Coca Cola marketing managers and scientists collaborate directly to develop new marketing strategies and the "big successes have come from markets where [marketing specialists] read the consumer psyche every day and adjust the marketing model" (Byrnes, 2000).

Despite multiple case studies demonstrating that convergence is simply a myth of international marketing (de Mooiu and Hofstede, 2002) , American and British retailers (particularly) continue to fail to recognize cultural differences when expanding into global markets (Murphy, 1999).

What does this mean for companies who want to effectively move into the emerging global marketing space?

Toyota Prius

Parameters of cultural variation

Effective localized design means adapting to local culture and sensibilities. But what might "culture" mean? Based on hundreds of interviews with IBM employees in 64 countries, Hofstede (1980, 1997, 2001) derived and validated five independent dimensions along which cultures vary. These dimensions provide intriguing insights into the variations in product presentation and uses that influence consumer decision making across cultures. And by extension, they inform us about design parameters such as what information to present and how to present it.

In Hofstede's analysis, each country is receives a score (typically between 0 and 100) on each dimension. Raw scores are presented by country by dimension. They include:

Power Distance – the degree of acceptance of inequality or power and authority. High scores indicate greater distance between the powerful and the pedestrian in a given society. Since status is important in these societies, power distance is often directly reflected in the existence and selection of spokesmen. In high power distance countries like Malaysia, spokesmen tend to be venerable, older and high-status individuals. In low power distance countries, "regular" people can be effective touts for products and services (de Mooij & Hofstede, 2002). With respect to navigation, Web sites designed for high power distance communities should tend to be more directive and information more highly structured (Marcus, 2001).

Individualism (v. Collectivism) – the value assigned to being perceived as wholly integrated into and supporting the larger group. Higher scores indicate greater individualism. Extension of this characteristic to purchasing behavior suggests that people in collectivist cultures tend to prefer national or global brands to private labels. De Mooij (2003) indicate that this preference reflects the collectivists' desire to maintain harmony and demonstrate one's willingness to assume one's "rightful place" in society.

Masculinity (v. Femininity) – the balance between assertiveness or toughness and supportiveness or caring. Higher scores indicate greater masculinity. This distinction might be reflected, for instance, in the selection of graphics and imagery. High-masculinity audiences should respond more favorably to competitive interactions with clearly distinct gender roles that depict luxury items as symbols of success (Mooij and Hofstede, 2002). In contrast, more feminine cultures may resonate better with less gender-specific imagery supporting collaborative interactions (Marcus, 2001).

Uncertainty Avoidance – the level of comfort in unstructured and potentially unpredictable situations. Higher scores indicate greater discomfort with uncertainty. We might expect that the pressure to build simple, self-evident Web sites is greatest for high uncertainty-avoidance countries. Whereas, low uncertainty-avoidance users may ignore instructions and guidance on the Web, high uncertainty-avoidance individuals are more likely to seek guidance and predictive or directive cues to what will happen next. Further, given the randomness and uncertain behavior of the Internet, we can predict that countries high in uncertainty avoidance will lag behind in Internet adoption and e-commerce acceptance. Countries such as Germany, France, Japan and Italy, with high uncertainty-avoidance scores lag behind those with lower scores in e-commerce adoption. (Mooij and Hofstede, 2002).

Long Term Orientation (v. Short term) – the trade off between striving for immediate recognition (through virtuous behavior) and long-term reward (through the search for the truth). Higher scores indicate greater perseverance and thrift. One distinction between long- and short-term orientation cultures may manifest in effective strategies for brand building. Short-term orientation communities are more likely to resonate with discount offers and immediate savings. In contrast, long-term orientation cultures should tend toward propositions that require building a longer relationship but yield greater reward (e.g., purchase point systems). (Hofstede and Bond, 1988)

Special challenges of Asian markets

Hofstede's dimensions provide significant fodder for speculation about variation in effective designs across cultures. Validating those intuitions, however, requires traditional data-driven user-centered analysis. Here again, practitioners who are insensitive to cross-cultural variation can experience unexpected challenges.

Even as globalized designs often miss the local target market, culturally-nonspecific, data-collection approaches can undermine the quality of the data. At the data-collection stage, cross-cultural sensitivities relate to understanding of the dynamic of hierarchy, authority, criticism, and interpersonal interaction. For instance, the standard protocols of usability testing takes for granted that participants provide essential data by offering a critical commentary on the design throughout the session. Whereas Westerners are quite comfortable offering criticism (and design advice!) during usability testing, individuals from Asian countries are not. Within the Asian culture, it is simply not polite to tell someone that they have a lousy design (Chavan, 2002).

There is also a difference in participants' comfort in admitting they can't complete a task. With coaching ("We are testing the interface, not you."), Western usability-testing participants willingly (and sometimes accusingly) report they can't find something – with little feeling of personal failure or regret. In contrast, Asian participants find it embarrassing and uncomfortable to offer such an admission. So consider a usability test in which you were testing a train-ticketing system that you knew didn't work. Participants WOULD fail on the critical tasks. Yet, cultural pressures would make it virtually impossible to elicit meaningful data. What to do?

The plot thickens...

Solving any usability challenges (and at its core, this is one) requires an a priori understanding of the context of the problem. In this case, understanding the context means understanding the culture. Having faced this problem numerous times, Chavan (2002) developed a creative, culturally comfortable strategy to allow Asian usability-study participants to offer critical feedback without inhibitions – make the participant a Bollywood movie star.

Chavan's Bollywood method derives from the Bollywood film genre, India's version of Hollywood movies, which are typically emotionally involved plots with great dramatic flourish. Within the usability-testing session, Chavan sets up a Bollywood scene – the participant's beautiful, young, and innocent niece is about to be married. Erstwhile, the protagonist / usability-testing participant learns that the groom-to-be is a hit man! Worse yet, HE IS ALREADY MARRIED! The participant must deliver the evidence (and the wife) to the niece in person or she will never be convinced. No time to waste! Book that train ticket!

Chavan finds that participants who were previously reluctant to complete or comment on the task, willingly assumed this fantasy and with great excitement began the ticket-booking process. The fantasy situation provides license to communicate in a way that, under normal circumstances, would be culturally prohibited. Further, given the gravity of the situation, even minor usability challenges elicit clear and penetrating commentary.

Think global, act local

In the mid-90s Ford Motor Company systematically centralized its global market structure. That cost-saving maneuver redirected the competitive focus away from local strategy. Today, Ford's offerings in Europe are off focus and largely noncompetitive in about 35% of the European market (Welch and Tierney, 2000).

Emerging markets and Internet technology together provide incredible opportunity for companies to mount sweeping campaigns to simultaneously penetrate global markets. However, accumulating anecdotal evidence and marketing research suggests that globalization does not result in consumer convergence. To the contrary, this trend seems to highlight culturally-driven differences reflected in ownership, consumption, and use of products. Effective localization depends on creating culturally appropriate strategies, such as the Bollywood method, to gather user-centered data for a global development initiative. Effective translation from data to design requires understanding how cultural parameters (such as long-term orientation and uncertainty avoidance) influence consumer attention and decision making within the user-experience flow.


Chavan, A. (2004). The Bollywood Method. Presented in Schaffer, E. Institutionalization of Usability; a Step-by-Step Guide. New York: Adisson Wesley. 129-130.

de Mooij, M. and Hofstede, G. (2002). Convergence and divergence in consumer behavior: implications for international retailing. Journal of Retailing, 78, 61-69.

Hofstede, Gert and Bond, Michael H. 1988 "The Confucian Connection: from cultural roots to economic growth," Organizational Dynamics, Vol. 16, No.4, pp. 4-21.

Hofstede, Geert (1980). Culture's consequences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

Hofstede, Geert (1997). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind. New York: McGraw Hill.

Hofstede, Geert (2001). Culture's consequences (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Levitt, Theodore (1983). The globalization of markets. Harvard Business Review, 61(May-June), 2-11.

Marcus, A. (2001). Cultural Dimensions and Global Web Design. Aaron Marcus and Associates publication.

McLuhan, Marshall (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. New York: McGraw Hill.

Murphy, Claire (1999). Tesco braves the dangers of taking brands abroad, Marketing: The Journal of Sales Management, 12(April 22), 19.

Welch, David and Christine Tierney (2000). Can the Mondeo get Ford back into the race? BusinessWeek, 3703(October 16), 74

Message from the CEO, Dr. Eric Schaffer — The Pragmatic Ergonomist

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Reviewed: 18 Mar 2014

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