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.



Loyalty and the Global Stage

Loyalty is a very tricky thing to define. Traditionally it is understood as a faithfulness or a devotion to a person, country, cause, group, or brand.  It is anything to which one’s heart can become attached or devoted.  That goes well beyond the transactional elements of a retailer and touches ideas of identity, obsession and even love.  Loyalty can be rewarded, but loyalty usually comes from within, from a story we like to tell ourselves. We’re loyal to sports teams and products (and yes, to people) because being loyal makes us happy.

Businesses seek to become the objects of loyalty, in order to have their customers return. Brand loyalty is a shopper’s preference for a particular brand, be it a retailer or product, and a commitment to repeatedly purchase that brand in the face of other choices. Traditionally, businesses establish loyalty programs which offer rewards to repeat customers, and often allow the business to keep track of their preferences and buying habits.  But is it loyalty?  It could just as easily be understood as opportunism – it is transient and fleeting, driven by a transactional relationship rather than long-term engagement.  Truly loyal customers understand that there’s almost always something better out there, but they’re not so interested in looking.

And it’s wise to remember that loyalty takes on different flavors across the globe. In terms of loyalty programs, there is a wide variety. Hong Kong offers many loyalty programs which include Octopus Rewards, which started as a chip based smartcard for transport and now, the Octopus cards can be used to earn points in certain shops, including McDonald’s and Wellcome supermarket. The idea is that the rewards and loyalty are derived from the shared wellbeing of the group.  Loyalty is about more than an individual and the business, it is about facilitating interactions within the socio-cultural network as a whole.  It is a subtle difference, but important in that it moves the decision process away from simply finding “good deals” to a reflection of one’s place in the social structure, with Octopus Rewards becoming a facilitator of what it means to be a good person.  This is reflected in the historical and cultural underpinnings of China (see The Sociology of Loyalty by James Connor for more detail).

Increasingly, companies complain that loyalty program discount goods to people that are buying their goods anyway, and that the expense of doing these programs rarely pays. Other critics see the lower prices and rewards manipulate customers, providing them short-term gains, but ultimately leading to feelings of resentment. Loyalty programs established in Russia have been less successful than anticipated because they are seen as an intrusion into a person’s life.  To some, participating in a loyalty program funds activities that violate privacy (Doing Business in Russia by Sergey Kolpashchiko).  Again, as with China, history and cultural patterns shape expectations and beliefs about these programs.

So if rewards programs are no guarantee and significant cultural differences shape whether or not a loyalty program will take root, how do you establish real, meaningful, long-term loyalty?  Well, the good news is that there are universals.

As wealth increases and people have more free time to spend shopping experience and interaction with the retail space becomes more important (see The Comfort of Things by Daniel Miller).  Loyalty becomes less about price incentives and more about catering to notions of identity, personal comfort and local identity.  It becomes intertwined with establishing emotional bonds that translate into devotion.  Part of why Heineken has done so well in the global market is that it appeal to a sense of nationalism when appropriate (sponsorship of soccer teams in Latin America).  The reward is being associated with a winning team and the Heineken give-aways that happen at games.  In retail the challenge has largely been overlooked, but the possibilities for establishing long-term relationships rather than short-gain transaction increases are virtually bursting with possibilities.

Loyalty, then, relies on shifting the conversation to achieve a specific paradigm: quality of product, service and experience leads to customer satisfaction, which leads to customer loyalty, which leads to profitability. Marketing and advertising draw upon the positive experiences of those exposed to a truly loyalty-centered business model inspired ventures to attract new customers.

Rewarding loyalty for loyalty’s sake is not an obvious path, but it’s a worthwhile one.  The idea that shifting the focus from paying people for sticking it out so the offering ends up being more attractive to one of deep engagement involves risk, commitment and a well developed strategy. But the payoff moves the business to one of volumes to one of margins. Tell a story that appeals to loyalists, engage them and you win. Treat different customers differently, and reserve your highest level of respect for those that stand by you.  That’s when you will see devotion and brand loyalty that cuts across global borders.

Global Culture and the Importance of Mobile Design

It’s widely recognized that brands and products can succeed or fail on the realization of their relative impacts on target audiences. It isn’t enough to build campaigns and strategies based on the newest technology. Without a plan based on real-life uses, needs and beliefs, businesses fail.  In an increasingly complex shopping ecosystem, where the lines between retail space and virtual space blur and use of time is dictated by the shopper rather than the availability of the retailer, understanding subtleties in meaning and behavior is of paramount importance.  In the mobile sector, especially when thinking in terms of globalization and emerging markets, getting it “right” means digging deeper than what demographic and statistical information provide and looking at how mobile devices are and will be used in context.

Case in point, the explosive growth of mobile-phone ownership in the developing world is partly the result of a vibrant recycling, the arrival of cheap phones and a general increase in per capita income. It is also growing rapidly, in part, to the efforts of forward-thinking retailers and developers. For example, anthropologists working for Nokia spend increasing amounts of time trying to understand what people living at the so-called “bottom of the pyramid” might want from a phone. In addition to handset innovation and apps geared to the improving daily life (such as designs with multiple phone books), people are increasingly looking to use mobile devices to shop. So what? The important element is what they are shopping for and how they use their devices, much of which can be transferred from a setting like India to a fast-paced market like New York. It isn’t enough to find the best deal, you also need to calculate the easiest route there, whether or not you can also pick up a new pair of jeans along the way and whether or not this still allows you time to meet your friends for that after dinner cocktail.

Another point. Only 7% of the population of India regularly access the internet from a PC. But brutal price wars mean that 507 million Indians own mobile phones (Indian operators such as Bharti Airtel and Reliance Communications sign up as many as 20 million new subscribers a month). That’s 507 million people who see your products and retail setting as potential status brands. It may be hard to believe, but Pabst Blue Ribbon is a premium brand in China, garnering around $40 for a bottle. It’s all in the positioning and the ease with which the shopper can find and access your brand. It is now possible for a person in Bangalore to order hand-crafted chocolate from San Francisco on his mobile phone, or to find the best deal on a new pair of Nikes within 5 miles from his home.

In other developing countries, too, there are many more mobile phones than traditional internet connections. There are 610 million internet users in Brazil, Russia, India, China and Indonesia (the so-called BRICI countries), but 1.8 billion mobile-phone connections, according to the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). And each of these economic giants has different expectations about language, product status and shopping. Getting your mobile strategy right can mean millions.

Whether in the US, Europe or developing markets around the world the possibilities are tremendous. Farmers in remote areas will find a manufacturer’s products and customized advice on crop planting using their cell phone. Your favorite cup of coffee will find your iPad as you move from a meeting in Paris to one in Shanghai.  Your Nook will “talk” to the store you’re in and automatically download content to keep the children occupied as you try on a new pair of shoes.

In order for the mobile phone to reach its full potential, we’re going to need to understand what people really need from their mobile devices and how these tools will integrate with the overall shopping experience.


By Gavin