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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog archive > 18-Oct-05


Tuesday 18-Oct-05

Culture, brands and selling

My daughter is currently studying for an M.Sc. in International Management and is doing an essay entitled something like 'as cultures converge, you can sell anything to anyone -- discuss'. So we got out the whiteboard and did some thinking. Mostly, she was thinking and I was keeping up. Here are just a few of the things we were thinking.

1. What is culture

Culture is shared beliefs and values. It is social rules that motivates people. Given a group of people, a culture will develop as they seek to create their sense of identity by differentiating the in-group from the out-group.

2. How does culture lead to purchase

As in  Maslow's hierarchy, after meeting basic needs, such as cost, then social needs start to bite. The influence of our peers and the cultural codes drive us to buy things that enables us to both survive and thrive within the group. We thus buy things, for example, to demonstrate in-group loyalty and out-group differentiation.

3. What is causing cultures to converge

Forces for convergence spread around the world and are pushing remote cultures together.

Wars are often, or maybe always, about convergence. We go to war because we want other countries to be more like us. The current war in Iraq is no different.

Media, of course, has a huge effect and the US movie machine demonstrates visually what to wear and how to behave around the world, whilst seducing the watches with promise of affluence and consuming life-style. More locally, newspapers and TV news tell us about the rules of right and wrong.

Economic dominance also exports culture. When you sell cosmetics or clothes, you are also selling the cultural assumptions about how you should appear to others.

4. What limits cultural convergence

Groups also have a funny effect in that whilst we want to belong, we will conform to the rules of similarity, hence driving purchase of the same thing, we also seek esteem, for which we need to stand out - which leads us to buy things which are different. We thus tend to buy things which are the same, yet different. Look at clothes, for example: although there are many similarities, we all dress differently.

There is an oscillatory effect in groups: we join a group for safety and identity, yet when the group gets larger, we create splinters with their own sub-culture or even counter-culture. Thus homogeneity creates fragmentation, and the whole process starts again. Even if you could create a common culture, it would not last.

Economics also create limitations, for example as few people can afford everything and some people can afford very little. Whilst affluence drives consumerism, it is still a relative force. Selling jet planes in rural China would not work too well. Not only would nobody be able to afford them, but there would also not be the infrastructure there to support them.

Social, religious and political forces provide other limitations. Selling pork in Israel probably would not be too successful and gun shops in England have are few and very tightly constrained. Even the great American machine can fail: the global reaction against the Iraq invasion has severely impacted such companies as McDonald's, who have sold the American dream worldwide for many years.

5. What examples are there, and how do questions 1-4 relate

Coca-cola is perhaps the quintessential universal product that sells across the world. Apart from the marketing, it slips under the wire in such constraints as cost, infrastructure and religion. It is still not a product for all people, however, and taste is a limiting factor. No matter how hard you sell it to me, I just don't like the stuff. Just give me a nice cuppa tea.

McDonald's is further up the scale towards a customised product as they do vary their menu around the world to cater for local tastes, although they maintain the same visual branding. Both McDonald's and Coke sell under the wider brand of the American dream, and so are affected by anti-American cultures and shifts of public opinion.

Further across the scale of non-universal products are guns and jet planes as mentioned before.

Overall, then, the answer to the original question is at best a qualified yes. Cultures may collide, but they do not stay as one. Dreams decay. Individualism arises out of the masses. Differing religions and political systems compete and change as they have done for hundreds of years. Ideological perfection is spoiled by human imperfection.


Not an essay, at least not yet. And not mine to write. But what joy to bang heads with my own child. To explore the world in an idea. To see the hopes for the future flower and grow. What fun!

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