Marketing and consumer researchers have long been interested in revealing and describing differences in the behaviour of consumers that arise from differences in culture between societies, nations and communities. Ignoring such differences can lead companies to making embarrassing and costly mistakes in international marketing. Culture sets ideas, values, norms, symbols and customs that influence and shape the thoughts, beliefs and actions of the people adhering to it; in particular, responses to marketing-oriented stimuli — products, advertising messages, websites, stores etc. — can vary specifically due to cross-cultural differences.
Kastanakis and Voyer (2014 ) propose that investigation of the effects of cross-cultural differences on consumer behaviour should look deeper into pre-behavioural processes, namely perception and cognition. Culture conditions perception and cognition, thus affecting how consumers perceive and understand stimuli, which consequently drive behaviour. Consumers develop perceptions and thoughts from the input of stimuli they attend to, but top-down processes set by pre-defined mind-sets, goals and beliefs (e.g., guided by culture) may inversely shape how consumers perceive, interpret and think of the information received from their environment. The researchers review ways in which culture influences perception and cognition in different functions or contexts. Similar to the greater part of research on cross-cultural differences, Kastanakis and Voyer concentrate on differences between Western cultures (individualist, espousing independence) and Eastern [Asian] cultures (collectivist, espousing interdependence).
Western cultures encourage people to see themselves by themselves, that is, developing an independent construal of one’s self-image; Eastern cultures on the other hand encourage people to see themselves as part of a group, that is, developing an interdependent self-construal. Thus, Easterners are predisposed to construe their self-image based on their relations with and similarities to others in a group of affiliation, compared with Westerners who view themselves as individuals independent from others, emphasising their unique traits. The tendency of Easterners to perceive and judge an individual person relative to surrounding others is demonstrated in this example cited by Kastanakis and Voyer: American and Japanese research participants were asked to judge the emotion of a central figure based on his or her facial expression when surrounded by other person figures showing the same or different expressions — “The findings indicate that the surrounding people’s emotions influenced Japanese perceptions but not Americans’ perceptions of the central person’s feelings.” [Based on research by Masuda, Ellsworth and others, 2008.] Contextual information (e.g., feelings of others) seems to matter for judgements in the East more than in the West.
In another implication of the independent-interdependent cleavage, whereas Westerners are mainly focused on achieving their personal goals, Easterners are looking more to help advance goals of the group they belong to, catering to others’ needs or wishes. The authors suggest as a possible consequence that “Westerners perhaps tend to join groups to serve their own needs, whereas in collectivist societies, people serve the groups to which they belong”. This difference in approach may affect, for example, the way users of social media in North America and Europe participate and interact in these networks, differently from users in Asia (e.g., South Korea, Japan, China). It has been repeatedly argued that social media networks have not helped people in the West to socialise any better, perhaps even to the opposite, and that users engaged in social media may still feel in solitary. A similar discussion may concern also the use of digital platforms in the rising ‘sharing economy’ (e.g., Airbnb, Uber, LendingClub). Gaining true benefits from socialising and sharing platforms is based on collaboration, contributing to others or at least reciprocating helpful actions by others, not quite in line with values and norms taught by the individualist culture of the West (e.g., promoting competition and personal achievement).
The contrast between independence and interdependence further finds an expression in a respective distinction between thinking styles: analytic vs. holistic. Analytic thinking, associated with an individualist culture, is more focused on single objects and the attributes of each; holistic thinking, associated with a collectivist culture, is more attentive to the context or field in which any object is found. Thereby, Westerners following an analytic perspective would be more inclined to observe and judge objects in isolation, whereas Easterners (Asians) following a holistic perspective tend to consider the relations between objects observed and make judgements based on the context of a whole scene. This distinction can have important implications for the perception and evaluation of visual scenes. For instance, a Westerner would focus on a particular exhibit or display of products in a store (e.g., a dressed mannequin) while an Easterner would see the same display against the background of other in-store displays and interior decorations of the store. In front of a shelf display, an Easterner viewing it holistically would be more attentive to the collection of products on display compared with an ‘analytic’ Westerner focusing on each product at a time (note: such a difference may also be applicable to a screen display of products on a webpage).
The difference in perspective is applicable also in viewing photographs of scenes, not just when being physically present on-site. Easterners more accustomed to a holistic view would be more capable at capturing the gist of a photographed scene as it relies on perceiving relations between multiple figures and objects in the scene. Westerners following an analytic perspective, on the other hand, would be more capable at noticing the attributes of particular objects. It should be noted, therefore, that while people in the collectivist East may have the advantage of identifying relations better, people in the individualist West may have the advantage of observing object details better (i.e., could be judging single objects with greater scrutiny). It furthermore appears that people match their aesthetic preferences to their culture-orientated perspective. Kastanakis and Voyer give an example wherein Eastern portrait paintings or photographs “tend to diminish both the size and the salience of the central figure and emphasize the field”. Such differences in perspective and thinking style should be considered, as the authors advise, in the aesthetic design of advertising materials and other communications as well as in retail sites.
Stronger relational processing has relevance to attributes, and moreover to a perceived relationship between price and physical product attributes used as intrinsic cues for quality. Lalwani and Shavitt (2013) provided ground support for the association between modes of self-construal — independent vs. interdependent — and reliance on a perceived price-quality relationship. The way people look upon their own self-concept vis-à-vis their relation to others radiates to their perceptions and processing of relations between price and quality attributes. Importantly, however, they show that the linkage is mediated by the distinction between analytic and holistic thinking styles. Interdependent (collectivist-oriented) consumers are more capable at processing price-quality relations, where holistic thinking in particular positively predicts greater reliance on such relationships .
In addition to visual processing and aesthetics, culture is known to affect perception, processing and preferences of smell and sound. Consumers may be biased to better recognise smells familiar to them in their culture or to better comprehend culturally familiar melodies. The bias occurs, as said by Kastanakis and Voyer, during recall and recognition before the information even enters the attitude formation, judgement, and decision making processes. Consider thereby the mixtures of styles and forms one would find in a country that absorbs immigrants originating from cultures different from each other or from the culture incumbent in the receiving country, for example in music and food. As people borrow from the traditions of communities of other cultural origins and adopt also from those typical locally, they get exposed to and experience mixtures of music melodies or food flavours. Yet, even with years passing certain things do not change — consumers may continue to feel more secure and comfortable with the familiar music genres and food styles they were raised on at home, associated with a given culture.
Kastankis and Voyer note a lack in cross-cultural research on taste perceptions; that is unfortunate because food is such a significant domain, but the smell of food may still have a cultural impact on consumers’ reactions.
Furthermore, the language one speaks can determine the perspective, individualist or collectivist, one applies. Immigrants, for instance, may change how they present themselves depending on the language they use: that of their origin or the one adopted in their current country of residence. The language carries the values and norms of a culture it is associated with, such as how people perceive themselves. For example, bi-cultural Chinese-born people refer to their own internal traits and attributes to describe themselves in English but describe themselves in relation to others when using Chinese. Kastanakis and Voyer argue that language is not emphasised enough as an aspect of culture: “language triggers a culture-bound representation of the self”.
Idiocentrism and Allocentrism are views held by people at the individual level in parallel to the individualist and collectivist cultural views of societies, respectively. This reference to individual-level culturally oriented views becomes particularly prominent when the personal view does not match the societal-level view dominant in one’s country of residence: for example, when people of Asian origin living in the United States, a country with an individualist culture, personally maintain an allocentric view.
Dutta-Bergman and Wells (2003) found some interesting differences in values held and lifestyles practised by idiocentrics and allocentrics living in the American individualist culture. For example, idiocentrics are likely to be more satisfied with their financial situation and optimistic than allocentrics; idiocentrics are also more disposed to be workaholic, yet are more innovative. Allocentrics are more likely to be health conscious; additionally, they are more inclined to invest in food preparation and other chores at home and to engage in group socialising than idiocentrics . (Note: Idiocentrism and Allocentrism are approached as individual-level dispositions adopted by people; they are not necessarily contingent on any immigration status or country-of-origin.)
The differences between individualist and collectivist cultures may influence human cognition in several more ways explained by Kastanakis and Voyer. Key areas involve self- versus others-related cognitions, self-esteem, and information processing. Briefly mentioning some noteworthy implications: (1) People in Western cultures have a stronger tendency to make dispositional attributions for behaviour (e.g., to one’s personal traits or competencies) and discard situational factors, as opposed to Easterners; (2) Causal reasoning in Eastern cultures tends to give greater consideration to interactions between personal (dispositional) factors and situational or contextual factors than in Western cultures; (3) In Western cultures people will prefer to classify products based on typical functional or physical attributes of categories (i.e., rule-based classification) whereas in Eastern cultures people will rely more on family resemblance and relationships between products (i.e., relational classification); (4) In persuasion, Westerners (e.g., Americans) prefer to take side in conflicts while Easterners (e.g., Chinese) are persuaded more by compromise solutions and are more ready to deal with contradictions.
Readers are reminded additionally of the differences in processing of visual information already described earlier (i.e., between the Western object-focused analytic approach and the context-orientated holistic approach in the East). These differences may be well-connected with the approach consumers take in judging and classifying products visually displayed (e.g., physically in-store, virtually in print or screen images).
Three final comments to conclude: First, as always we have to be careful with generalisations made such as between ‘Western culture’ and ‘Eastern culture’. There are differences in elements of culture between countries associated more closely with either the individualist or collectivist streams of culture. There is furthermore variation among communities and sectors within countries, and some tendencies may also be considered as individual-level differences (e.g., holistic vs. analytic thinking). Second, there is need in the West to explore and deepen the understanding of other streams of culture (e.g., African, Middle Eastern, South American). Third, Kastankis and Voyer address changes in perspective and behaviour of people in Asian nations caused by their growing exposure to the Western individualist cultural orientation. However, a more salient phenomenon prevalent in recent decades seems to be the immigration of people originating from non-Western cultures coming to live in countries of the West. Especially in Europe, the extent of exchange in ideas, values and customs between people with Western-orientation (‘incumbents’) and non-Western cultural orientations (e.g., from Africa and the Middle East) should have great impact on the balance between cultures on the continent (as well as in the UK), and not least the kind of consumer culture that will prevail in future.
International marketers must keep fully aware of and account for the differences between Western individualist orientation and Eastern collectivist orientation, and more so their multiple facets of manifestation in perception and cognition. Particularly important is paying attention to the differing thinking styles (i.e., analytic vs. holistic thinking) for their possible implications in processing and responding, for example, to persuasive attempts in advertising in online and offline channels, store design and visual merchandising. Extending marketing plans or initiatives across seas and borders, without making consideration for these potential differences, may significantly diminish the effectiveness of the actions taken in new destination markets to the extent of proving utterly precarious.
Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)
 The Effect of Culture on Perception and Cognition: A Conceptual Framework; Minas N. Kastanakis and Benjamin G. Voyer, 2014; Journal of Business Research, 67 (4), pp. 425-433. (Accepted version is available at eprints.lse.ac.uk/50048/ on LSE Research Online website).
 You Get What You Pay For? Self-Construal Influences Price-Quality Judgments; Ashok K. Lalwani and Sharon Shavitt, 2013; Journal of Consumer Research, 40 (August), pp. 255-267 (DOI: 10.1086/670034).
 The Values and Lifestyles of Idiocentrics and Allocentrics in an Individualist Culture: A Descriptive Approach; Mohan J. Dutta-Bergman and William D. Wells, 2002; Journal of Consumer Psychology, 12 (3), pp. 231-242.