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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.

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Comment by Dick Davies on November 27, 2012 at 12:46pm

Another great post, Dannielle!

I wanted to say something different about your point 5. Point five stands as is, and then add a next point, Find your benefit in their needs, follow on with repeating Marketing is about catering to what the customer wants. True in ethnic and technical niches.

Thanks for a mind stretcher.

Comment by Peter Sperry on November 23, 2012 at 10:51am
Very good advice which can be applied to internal marketing. Budgeteers, including your agency budget shop, OMB and Congressional Appropriations staff belong to a high context professional culture. Program managers who recognize this and use your suggestions to market their resource requests to this community will tend to get better results than the vast majority who insist the budgeteers are just being tightfisted.

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