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10 Rules of Marketing To Low-Context Cultures

Yesterday I wrote about reaching customers from high-context cultures, where meaning is transmitted implicitly. But what if your audience is low-context? What does that mean, anyway?
  • High-context means they have a strong shared understanding in terms of values and the meaning behind communication. Examples include culturally homogeneous immigrant groups and also specialized work groups who speak in terms nobody else understands.
  • Low-context means they have less shared understanding and diverse identities and need to have things articulated clearly in ways that span cultures. A prime example is the United States of America as a mass audience, as the identities of its citizens varies dramatically from place to place.
When you are marketing to a low-context culture:

1) Emphasize one primary language. The global language of business is still English.

2) Put diverse-looking people in your marketing copy. It's about appealing to a broad base and showing how anyone can fit in.

3) Focus on mass advertising, not word-of-mouth as for high-context cultures (should have included this in the last post).

4) Artificially create a new community out of whole cloth. Do not apologize for this, just do it boldly. When you join the Army, buy a Harley, or visit Disneyland you join a created community. 

5) Use a lot of words. What's the storyline? Explain it, tell it as if it were real. Think narrative - like American Girl dolls.

6) Think about shiny, glossy, artificial textures. High-context cultures want authenticity (for example, marble and wood). Low-context cultures want the sense of starting something new and clean (e.g. plastic).

7) Emphasize consistency rather than excellence, because normally low-context cultures have to accommodate a high volume of potential members. McDonald's french fries might or might not be the best in the world, but you know that no matter who you are, you'll get the same ones every time. 

8) Focus on speed, innovation, imagination, breaking the rules. Low-context cultures are not bound by convention and seek products and services that reinforce that identity.

9) Talk to newcomers. Low-context cultures are very much about recruitment and welcoming people into the fold without question. If you watch Joel Osteen's show every week, for example, he tells the viewer to visit Lakewood Church, where they will be made to feel "right at home." There is a reason for this - low-context cultures thrive on diversity and newness.

10) Emphasize equal opportunity rather than being a "status brand." Low-context cultures are populated by people who seek a different kind of community with invented rules. Normally they are very into equality rather than declarations of status, because that is how heterogeneous communities stay harmonious despite a high volume of people each seeking their own interests. 

7 Rules of Marketing To High-Context Cultures

Over the past few weeks I've had the opportunity to observe Russian, Korean, Hasidic Jewish, Muslim, and Hispanic consumers in their natural habitats (e.g. going about regular life).

Speaking very broadly, one thing all of these groups have in common is that they are high-context. Meaning, they have a broad base of shared understanding. It doesn't take a lot of communicating for them to transmit meaning to one another.

Marketing to high-context cultures can be challenging if you don't understand the culture, or if you're used to a communication environment where things are spelled out very clearly.

Here are 7 things I've observed that may prove helpful no matter what audience you're dealing with:

1) Communicate in their native language. The native language is not only a technicality of words and their meaning. Culture is imbued in it. For example, some languages can be gender-neutral and others cannot. Beliefs about gender and gender roles are imbued in language. When you trespass on these (even inadvertently) you turn off the customer.

2) Be represented by members of the community. High-context cultures operate within a tightly knit community in which the rules are very intricate. The rules are based on values that hold the community together. There is normally a perception that outside influences are dangerous and must be carefully moderated so that the community's influence is not subverted or diluted. Therefore, it is only members of the community who can make an outside product or service acceptable. Also, members of the community can tell you when you are doing something offensive without realizing it.

3) Package the product in ways that remind them of "home." Home is a very broad term. It means the place where you were born, raised, feel most yourself. So for example in Miami, the architecture that appeals to the Russian community is very ornate. There is also an emphasis on the concept of the spa, the baths, the capacity of salt to cleanse and detoxify. In Maryland, I observed Korean people congregating in a nature preserve, collecting water from the creek, and marveling at the various local creatures with what seemed like incredible joy.

4) Treat the group as a consumer - do not focus on the individual. As mentioned above, high-context cultures are very tightly knit and somewhat defensive against the larger society. They survive by operating as a group. They think collectively. They have more permeable boundaries between the person and the family, and family and community. It is believed that the individual has a responsibility to the group equal to or greater than the responsibility to fulfill oneself - in fact this is normally seen as selfish. Focus on the group.

5) Don't judge. Marketing is about catering to what the customer wants. If you can't respect their values, do not market to them.

6) Be authentic. Members of high-context cultural groups love America, they love the brand it represents in their minds, they love the idea of freedom and the melting pot and education and opportunity. This may sound contradictory to catering to the values of the group, but it's not. It's about understanding that for high-context groups, there are very clear demarcations between "who they are" and what "buying American" represents, and they are happy to do so at times. The subtlety is in navigating the breach or the gulf between the two worlds.

7) Focus on technology. Technology is a culturally agnostic freedom tool. It brings access to information, freedom from the grip of the "elders" and the hold the community has on you, it is power.  People from high-context immigrant cultures love technology, they understand what it can do for them as individuals in terms of empowerment and they take every opportunity to learn it and obtain it. If you can market technology to the immigrant community in a way that is accessible - i.e. affordable and where the utility is clear, and with reliable service - you have a huge advantage.

Tips on Winning (and Keeping) the Business - Mobile Apps

This question was posed on Quora: "What should agencies care about regarding mobile apps for brands - winning awards or getting downloads?" 

Here is my response:

I. Winning the business
Clients want apps that 

1) Look cool 

2) Are better than the app they saw that made them decide to get an app 

3) Are EZ to use 

4) Load fast 

5) Drive brand awareness. 

Awards = irrelevant as are # of downloads (this happens after they pay). 

II. Winning and keeping clients, general advice
1) Be easy to work with

2) Talk in simple terms not techy 

3) Provide a few tables/pie charts showing how competitors have benefited from a similar app. Nobody wants to be behind the curve.

III. Keeping the business
Show results. 

With an app, the best way to show results is to offer some useful capability for free, that also relates to the brand message. This is marketing, sales and branding all at the same time.

Apps like these get people to download and use. To build awareness of the app, integrate on sites and perhaps in other apps where the target goes anyway - drawing new prospects in.

So for example if you are promoting a boutique hotel, create an app that geonavigates people to local hotspots and gives them a discount for scanning w/ the smartphone upon arrival.

Branding As A Tool For Cultural Understanding

Today for the first time I actually read the Hamas charter, which you can find pretty easily online. It struck me that the writing was clear and logically consistent with their anti-Israel rhetoric and violence.

It struck me that most people have probably not actually read the document. If they did they would see that peace agreements are not in keeping with their brand.

A mistake we make when we think about things is to get our biases mixed up with our brains.

Personally I am Jewish, somewhat secular and embrace the Western "live and let live" worldview: "Who am I to judge?" "It's all good." All of these factors introduce bias.

At the same time I have enough cognitive independence to know that if an organization issues a brand promise and then lives up to it, they probably mean what they say.

The Western secular mind does not easily comprehend a culture so different as Hamas. But you can if you use the language of branding.

Their vision is a greater Palestine as part of a pan-Arab nation that lives according to Islamic law.

Their mission is to wage war against those who get in the way, and in particular to
purge the land of any semblance of a Jewish nation.

Zionism, as a brand is incompatible with Hamas. Zionism says that there is a democratic and independent state called Israel. It is a place where everyone may practice or not practice as they wish. It is a place of diversity and tolerance. And it is a place with a distinctly Jewish identity.

To respect all sides in a matter of disagreement one has to acknowledge the reality of each. The reality is that Zionism and Hamas are opposing brands. The charter if Hamas makes it so.

I unfortunately do not have the answer to the Middle East crisis. But I do have a clearer grasp of the dimensions of the problem. That, to me feels like progress.

Aligning The Big 5: Knowledge Mgmt., PR, Corp. Comm., Internal Marketing & The Visual Brand

Think of the modern economy as a funnel.
  • Services sits at the very top and captures nearly everyone. No matter what you actually do, you get employed and stay employed based on the quality of your relationships with others.
  • Knowledge represents fewer people, but captures many.  If you are a technical or subject matter expert of any kind you fit into this category. 
  • Manufacturing includes still fewer and captures some. These are people who actually produce goods for the rest of us.
Now think of where you sit in relationship to this funnel:
  • Frontline workers deal directly with the public and can fall into any of the categories above.
  • Support personnel support the frontline and make sure they are equipped to get the job done.
This article is for support personnel in the communications field. We're not doing a good enough job of taking care of the frontline - and that includes the public. Because a key challenge faced by frontline workers today (internal customers), as well as the public confronting the organization, is the lack of an "easy" button. Wherever they go they are confronted with discombobulated systems - a Tower of Babble - set up to speak languages that may or may not be useful to them.

We see this very clearly with respect to 5 related fields that rarely talk to one another: knowledge management, public relations, corporate communications, internal marketing, and the visual brand. All of them deal with the collection and distribution of information; rarely do they work hand-in-hand. If you think about the ecosystem of information you can see the need for integration on the customer's behalf. It's our job to support them by:
  • Harnessing knowledge: Collect information and return it back to employees in an organized way
  • Supporting the growth of internal social networks: Enable a culture that is warm, welcoming and closely knit to promote employee engagement
  • Providing digestible and relevant information: Corporate communications
  • Explaining what we do to outside parties, including the media: Make it easy for public relations specialists within the organization to promote its achievements, provide clear and comprehensive status information, and explain missteps
  • Implementing a consistent visual identity: The visual brand tells our customers when we are speaking; it is a mark of authenticity that they count on when dealing with us.
The challenge we need to think through right now - ideally, supported by IT is aligning all of the above fields. If we can integrate information without putting an extra burden on the frontline worker, we should be able to increase their productivity and our own effectiveness at the same time. 

Packaging, Packaging, Packaging: 7 Tips

Recently I did a micro-experiment in marketing for work. Basically I'm helping with a charity drive and to that end ran a small "mystery gift" event. I took dollar-store gifts, wrapped them, put a bow on them and "sold" them for a contribution of the donor's choice. The following observed behaviors taught me a great deal about the importance of packaging:

1) First brand, then color: When people did not know what was inside the box, they looked at the box itself. They picked wrapping paper with Snoopy on it versus other brightly colored papers. The black wrapping paper iwth a design was the leaset popular.

2) Shaking the package: I hadn't seen this one before but at least three people actually picked the various packages up and shook them to determine what could be inside. (Two of them were right.)

3) Irregular shape: People tended to pick up the odd, irregularly shaped packages versus the simple, symmetrical ones.

4) Relationship marketing: Sales picked up when I engaged with the "customers" rather than just sitting back and letting them choose something. They liked having a conversation about what could be inside, how they could use it, what the purpose of the event was, etc.

5) Everyone wants a deal: All the gifts were relatively worthless, but I told every customer that I would give them a special "deal," or that certain gifts were better than others, and that very much moved the merchandise.

6) Pay-what-you-want: The policy of letting people pay what they wanted yielded twice the value of the outlay for the gifts.

7) But you must pay: If it's not clear - either from the signage or from the collection pot or from the conversation - that you must pay something, people will walk off with something.

Celebrate Religion, Increase Productivity

This is a discussion point I wrote on the subject of whether it's OK to be religious at work (at GovLoop):
My focus is communication to enhance the functioning of an organization and to that end I think it is possible and important to encourage people to bring their whole selves to work.
Religion, faith, spirituality are critical aspects of diversity. When we stifle that, we disengage the workforce in a significant way. When we celebrate it in ways that don't threaten, we show that we are truly committed to intellectual diversity as well rather than the groupthink that keeps us dysfunctional at times.
For example: Imagine if we celebrated wearing religious attire at work rather than the Western suit. I know Jewish people who do not wear the headcovering (kippa) because they don't want to be "marked" or discriminated against and imagine it is similar for those of other faiths.
Another example: Imagine if we set aside prayer rooms so that people who pray multiple times a day can do that without significantly interfering with their work. I am aware of an agency that does this. It can also be used for meditation. (Just like there are lactation rooms.)
A third example: Imagine if we held cultural food celebrations so that we could learn more about faith in the context of nationality and ethnicity. I just learned about a food called "shabich" in Israel that is the most popular street food around. It is derived from the Sabbath breakfast food of Iraqi Jews (fried eggplant and hardboiled eggs) and stuffed in a pita (because everything in Israel is stuffed in a pita). I learned from this same article that falafel and hummus are originally Arab foods (see here). Considering what is going on in the Middle East it is nice to know that Israelis and Arabs (and Jews and Muslims) are in fact very similar in many ways. Cultural knowledge brings understanding and in a larger sense, peace.
A fourth example, a bit more complicated but I think necessary, has to do with helping people of faith to adapt to workplaces where the norms directly conflict with religion, and in turn helping supervisors to understand the implications of faith for some of their employees. (Example - the ultra-Orthodox Jewish practice not to shake hands with someone of the opposite sex; for those who are not familiar with it, refusal to shake hands can seem like an insult.)
Unfortunately much policy and practice seems to be driven by fear, stagnation or simply a lack of time due to more pressing operational matters. But think about it - we take the time to recruit people, we pay for training, we depend on them to work together on critical projects, and so much of our institutional knowledge is invested in their brains. Their hearts as well should be engaged in the community that supports the mission. 
To that end I agree with Facebook's philosophy as expressed in this letter to investors:
"We hope to strengthen how people relate to each other....Personal relationships are the fundamental unit of our society. Relationships are how we discover new ideas, understand our world and ultimately derive long-term happiness."
This is very much about intelligent investment in human encouraging physical fitness we cut down on sick time later on; by encouraging and celebrating spiritual self-expression (again, as long as it does not impinge on the rights of others) we cut down on disengagement and improve morale and therefore productivity. 

The #1 Stupid Thing Organizations Do To Mess Up Their Brand - via Mark Morris, The Brand Consultancy

I asked for comments on this article in Fast Company at my group Brand Masters. My former boss Mark Morris, Founder and Senior Strategist at The Brand Consultancy, said the following. It's very well said and I appreciate that he provided me with permission to share it publicly:
"The most common thing organizations do to mess up their brands is not knowing what their brand is. It lives somewhere out there with their customers but everyone internal to the organization makes up their own version of what it stands for, what promise it makes and how that promise is kept. Great organizations bring their customers voice into every decision they make. We say "they have breakfast with their customers." A ongoing dialogue in every channel available and practical. In essence, they speak in the voice of their customer."