Relativism and Marketing, The Good and the Bad

Cultural Relativism is the view that how we interpret the world, which vary from culture to culture, are equally valid and no one system is really “better” than any other. A key component of cultural relativism is the concept that nobody, not even researchers, comes from a neutral position. T1466608552.jpghe way to deal with our own assumptions is not to pretend that they don’t exist but rather to acknowledge them, and then use the awareness that we are not neutral to inform our conclusions. Therefore, any opinion on beliefs, practices, and norms is subject to cultural and individual interpretations. It is a widely held position in the social sciences. “Pluralism,” “tolerance,” and “acceptance” have taken on new meanings, as the boundaries of “culture” have expanded. But what does this have to do with marketing?

As the world shrinks and communication becomes more global, we are confronted with new challenges. In addition to developing strategies that will have the broadest reach, we have to be aware that not every idea will be interpreted the same way. What works in New York will be understood differently in Virginia, not to mention Mumbai. As such we have to think through not only what a brand stands for, but also how it will be understood across multiple cultural contexts.

How we transmit research findings and translate them into insights also has to be reexamined. Our audiences have their own cultural and personal baggage they bring to the table, and they interpret what we tell them through very specific lenses. Cultures of practice (e.g. engineering culture, business culture, etc.) shape how they interpret a message and shape what they create. That means we as researchers and strategists must remain deeply involved with the teams who use our findings to ensure we can navigate the range of cultural systems in a meaningful way.

With all of that in mind, it’s worth noting that taking a relativist approach is not without pitfalls. Like anything, there are positives and negatives.


  1. A Respect For Other Cultures
    The biggest benefit that can be brought from the idea of cultural relativism is the universal respect for different cultures and worldviews. The belief that one person knows what is right, and that is the only way it is, isolates and discriminates against people who believe differently. By removing our biases (as much as we can) from te investigation, we begin to see new opportunities and ways of addressing problems.
  1. Excusable Actions
    With cultural relativism, nearly any action that is filtered through the lens of cultural difference. While this may seem like a con, there are certainly pros to it. There is a dizzying amount of perspectives in this world, and with social and other types of media, even the smallest action is made into a worldwide spectacle and debate. Understanding cultural relativism will help to alleviate much of the stress in these debates and can identify culturally appropriate solutions.
  1. Preserves Cultures
    Many times, culturally traditional things begin to shift and change in order to appease the world view of said culture. With cultural relativism, these traditions can remain or the transition can be made less disruptive.


  1. Some Actions Are Not Excusable
    Many groups use the theory as an excuse of appalling actions. Things such as extreme violence, crimes against children, domestic abuse, racism, and many other things are overlooked and passed off as “culturally acceptable”, when in reality, they are not. Cultural relativism cannot and should not be mistaken for ethical relativism.
  1. No Judgment Is Still A Judgment
    By saying that no moral judgment can be passed on any culture practice is truly a bias in itself. People begin to feel hostile because even if they deeply disagree with a cultural practice, there is seemingly nothing that they can do about it.
  1. Good and Bad Is A Strange Concept
    Determining what is deemed good and what is bad is an impossible thing. There is no one person who can deem morals to be correct or wrong. Consequently, we still have to make personal judgments about what we will and will not work on.

Ultimately, success is about finding balance between what we can do and what we should do. Even as the world shrinks we are seeing and increased sense of tribalism. Every brand, every product, every campaign is up for debate and scrutiny. Being able to understand how we create meaning and fit within varying cultural dialogs is the difference between creating something meaningful and creating a disaster.


Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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