Talking Cultural Diversity

a discussion board for cultural and diversity issues by Thomas Kochman and Jean Mavrelis

Marketing Culture

By Thomas Kochman - 05.16.2013

Years ago there was an ad promoting the intelligence of ATMs showing the ATM saying to a regular user, “Your usual $50”, Mr. _____.

It got pulled shortly thereafter.

My hunch why that happened is that, while it seemed caring and friendly on the surface, it also evoked an image of “big brother” — eliciting such thoughts as, “My God! Look what they (“the powers that be”) know about me!” –thus not only a violation of privacy but also loss of autonomy, characterized by, “I want to be given the choice to decide how much I want, even if I end up choosing the same amount”.

And in US mainstream culture, this often outweighs appreciation for someone knowing what you would want without you having to ask, a marketing approach cultivated in technology by Apple and Google and now even further by Google in its latest venture, “Google Introduces New Search Tools to Try to Read Our Minds”.

The anticipation of wants and needs approach is appealing at some level even within the US– reminiscent of being catered to without having to ask or do anything for oneself (a sign of class privilege, full service vacation, nursing home, or nursery—take your pick).

The challenge of course for marketers is to determine which aspect of culture will prevail: marketing autonomy or having someone correctly anticipate your next wish or need.

As might be expected different cultures line up differently on this question.

Takie Sugiyama Lebra, in her book Japanese Patterns of Behavior, for example, talked about the Japanese cultural concept omoiyari, empathic consideration and/or correct anticipation of someone else’s needs, and compares that to US Mainstream culture, that asks people what they want—not only as a courtesy but at a deeper cultural level: respect for individual autonomy and self-determination.

These differences underlie why, in Lebra’s example, a Japanese woman marvels at witnessing a US Mainstream wife asking her husband after 25 years of marriage how he wants his morning coffee. She thinks, “Doesn’t she know how he wants his coffee after 25 years of marriage?”

At the same time, a US Mainstream person might well object even if someone correctly anticipated what they wanted but did not ask them first.

By way of contrast, a Japanese person, as Lebra put it, “couldn’t care less”, not only not bothered by the absence of choice but annoyed at being constantly asked, “What do you want … like to do” when visiting the US.

Our Latino colleague was always irked when a professional he saw –his dentist say—would ask him to choose between methods of treatment that he offered.

He would think, “He, after all, is the professional and in a much better position to know what the right course of action is.”

He saw handing over that decision to him as a shirking of professional responsibility–also someone else to blame if things went wrong.

Of course the other side of the equation is that even in cultures which embrace anticipation of someone else’s needs –it is also important to get it right.

Drawing upon Lebra again–she also talks about the Japanese cultural concept osekkai, or “meddlesomeness”, for people who often act on the basis of what they think others would or should want or need and get it wrong.

One thing then that seems consistent across all cultures –whatever the pattern– is the importance of getting things right, preferably, up front, also knowing that (again different in different cultures) there may be little or no forgiveness after the fact, if you don’t.

Are you ready for that?


One Response so far

Interesting. Will think of this next time I go to the dentist.

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