future thinkers update

Games without frontiers

by Annette Smith
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Research into the culture of European consumers reveals five key clusters  
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European consumers fit into five cultural groups

Cracking European markets is high on the wishlist of most major organisations but it can only be achieved if marketeers fully understand cultural differences within Europe.

Intersperience has completed an authoritative multi-national research project which not only delivers fresh insights into cultural differences and similarities across Europe but also provides a unique measurement of the ‘cultural distance’ between nations.

Corporate annals abound with cautionary tales of cultural blunders, many related to ill-thought-out advertising or marketing campaigns. Some gaffes stem from linguistic errors while others stem from ignorance of different meanings of body gestures, or more subtly, divergent social aspirations and cultural values.

Examples include US car giant General Motors launching a car called Chevy Nova into Spanish-speaking markets without realizing that ‘no va’ means won’t go in Spanish, while a beauty firm launched a curling iron called ‘mist stick’ in Germany where ‘mist’ is slang for manure. European businesses have got it wrong too – eg Electrolux ran a campaign in the United States with the slogan ‘Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.’

Linguistic differences however are only one aspect of cultural differences – there are deeper, less obvious issues which underpin cultural beliefs and behaviour. For example, a luxury goods advert which sells on the basis of standing out from the crowd may succeed in cultures where individual success is lauded but may fail in cultures where this is perceived as contrary to more ‘collectivist’ principles.

The key point is that ignoring cultural differences leads to ‘cultural shock’ which in turn can lead to alienated customers and lost sales.

German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger commented: “Culture is like dropping an Alka Seltzer into a glass, you don’t see it but somehow it does something.”

Intersperience’s research offers an enhanced understanding of the complex nature of cultural differences. The project, which included 2,600 surveys with citizens across Europe, was designed to create a unique ‘Cultural Lens’ through which cultural behaviours can be viewed.

It provides a new framework for understanding how nations can most effectively be grouped for marketing purposes, based on a rigorous analysis of cultural values and beliefs and their impact on attitudes and behaviour.

Historically, views of Europe have either tended to lump European nations together as a homogenous group or divided it broadly into East and West, attributing shared cultures accordingly. Both approaches are fundamentally flawed as the reality is much more complex.

We identified five key groupings or clusters of nations with shared cultural behaviours and also customer service expectations and preferences. Our clusters include some perhaps surprising clusters of nations which our research revealed as sharing striking cultural similarities.

The five clusters we identified are:

- The Nordic and Germanic cluster of Sweden, Germany and Austria

- The North Sea cluster which includes the UK and Denmark

- The Latin cluster which groups Spain, Italy and Romania

- The Eastern cluster of Turkey, Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine

- Lithuania which counts as a cluster on its own as it is so different from the rest

When arriving at our clusters, our methodology was to group behaviours into six dimensions and to measure the “cultural distance” between nations based on these dimensions.

The five clusters which emerged demonstrate clearly that neither geographic proximity nor language are the determining factors when it comes to identifying nations with common cultures, nor is relative economic prosperity.

This is despite the fact that on several counts such as GDP, economic growth, life expectancy, and internet penetration there is a clear East/West divide. Notably, Eastern Europe is frequently treated as a single entity from a marketing perspective yet our research revealed significant differences between Eastern European nations when viewed through our cultural lens rather than a geographic perspective.

In general, Eastern European nations are focused on the long-term future, more collectivist, nurturance-oriented and embrace novel goods and services. Yet, within Eastern Europe Poland and Romania show marked differences on a number of dimensions, indicating that different approaches are needed in each market.

The implications of our research are potentially far-reaching and shatter many preconceived assumptions about effective international marketing, sales and customer service strategies.

Our findings suggest that in order to avoid potentially costly ‘culture shocks’, marketing teams, projects and campaigns should be structured on the basis of cultural clusters rather than on the basis of geographic lines. As global corporations wake up to the bottom line impact of cultural sensitivity they need to find new ways to ‘think global but act local’.

For more information on the issues raised in this update, please email outi.dorsen@intersperience.com

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