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Click Culture: Exploring the Effect of Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions on International Search

Throughout the world, there are countless ways to communicate. Messages that work in the United States, a historically individualistic culture, may be disastrous in a more collective culture like Japan. International retailers must understand cultural nuances to create successful paid search programs that click with their target audience.

Thankfully, Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede conducted extensive research in the field of cross-cultural communications in the 1960s. His findings have influenced various fields in the years since, including digital marketing.

At NetElixir, we’ve utilized the principles of his findings to gain valuable insights into the search and purchase behavior of consumers around the world. Any retailer looking to succeed in the international market should consult his theory before creating a global search campaign. NetElixir is one of the few search marketing agencies to build this model into our international client campaigns.

Why do we take it so seriously? We’ve compiled a summary of Hofstede’s theory as it relates to retail marketing, with behavioral insights for various countries and cultural groups.

Cultural Dimensions Theory and Real-World Insights

Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory is a framework for cross-cultural communication. It describes how a society’s culture influences the values and behaviors of the people within that particular group. It can be applied to a collection of scenarios to better understand the actions and beliefs of diverse cultural groups.

Hofstede began his research in 1965 when he founded the research department at IBM Europe. He surveyed 117,000 IBM employees about national values and then compared their responses to the results of similar surveys conducted in 50 other countries and three regions. At the time, it was one of the largest cross-cultural studies ever conducted.

His observations on the major differences between cultures were published in a database that numerous industries still consult to this day. As you can imagine, this includes the international business (specifically marketing) and communication industries.

While it was originally developed with the intention of studying employee values, Hofstede expanded the study’s reach to be more inclusive. The theory now includes the study and analysis of six specific dimensions related to human values:

  1. Individualism vs. collectivism
  2. Uncertainty avoidance
  3. Power distance index (strength of social hierarchy)
  4. Masculinity vs. femininity (task-orientation vs. person-orientation)
  5. Indulgence vs. restraint
  6. Long-term orientation vs. short-term orientation

The following table depicts the major differences between short-term and long-term societies, all of which relate to the six dimensions mentioned above:

Short- and long-term-oriented societies are guided by distinct sets of values.

There’s a scoring system within the cultural dimensions theory that Hofstede uses to rate countries in each of the six dimensions mentioned. One (1) is the lowest score and 120 is the highest. You can look at any country and see how they’re rated in each value dimension, in comparison with the other countries in the study.

For example, North American and European countries score very highly for individualism, while Eastern countries tend to have lower marks in this area. The United Kingdom and United States scored 89 and 91 in this category, respectively. Such high scores indicate these nations’ values are more firmly rooted in the individual. China, on the other hand, has an individualism rating of 20.

In individualistic countries, people are prone to make their own decisions and act in looser groups. Collectivist societies are more group-oriented. They rely on others to help make decisions and are better-aligned with families and tight-knit groups.

The following graph shows which countries are more individualistic versus collectivist, with countries at the bottom being more individualistic (think the U.S. and U.K.) and countries at the top more grounded in collectivism (e.g. China and Mexico).

Some countries have an individualistic culture, while others are more collective.

HOW DO CULTURAL DIMENSIONS APPLY TO RETAIL MARKETING?

As previously mentioned, international retailers are among the industries most interested in Hofstede’s theory. This is because the principles of cultural dimensions can easily be applied to established marketing practices. Furthermore, you can gain incredibly valuable insights regarding purchase behavior across a myriad of cultures.

Customer behaviors fluctuate depending on geographic location, especially in terms of paid search. You can no longer use a one-size-fits-all approach to international marketing if you expect to be successful. The dimensions of individualism versus collectivism affect purchasing decisions. Since each group holds competing values, individual societies tend to be more price-sensitive. These cultures care more about status or brand influence.

For example, a consumer in Germany will react differently to a call-to-action (CTA) than someone in the U.S. The same goes for other aspects of paid search, such as landing pages and keywords. The following are some digital marketing insights and best practices that stem from Hofstede’s theory of cultural dimensions.

Cultural Insights and Recommendations

Landing pages

All landing pages should be localized. Simply put, ads should be in the local language and all content needs to take cultural differences and sensitivities into account. If you perform these tasks, your SEO will improve. Google will recognize that your page has been optimized and your ads are less likely to bounce.

That said, there are exceptions and it’s important to do independent research and make note of your findings. For example, a 2015 Google study found that only 1 in 5 Hispanic searchers will look for a Spanish site after landing on an English one.

In addition, if your business is located in a culturally diverse location, it may be worthwhile to advertise in common languages present in the area. Use a search query report to find out which language(s) people are using to find your business.

You’ll also want to use hreflang tag attributes on your pages. These tags let Google know which language you’re using on a specific page so it can be shown for relevant searches in the correct language. This is particularly useful if you have multiple versions of the same page in different languages. Our free Hreflang Language Generator & Checker tool can help you get started.

Localized Keywords

Use the appropriate terminology for different cultures, e.g. “cell phone” for the U.S., “mobile” for the U.K., and “handy” for Germany. This can easily be determined by running a keyword report to find out which keywords people are using to search for your business. You can use the Google Ads Keyword Planner to find search volumes for keywords within specific locations. Create a list of a few important keywords for your business in the language you want to test and review the volume.

Tailor your CTA Across Cultures

Customers in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) don’t like ads written by non-native speakers which are then translated by a machine. People from France prefer searching in French when browsing or purchasing products online. Capitalizing the first letter of a word increases your ad’s chances of standing out in Germany.

Check out the User Locations tab in Google Ads to find out where the people who are clicking your ads live. Then make it a best practice to learn their culture in order to optimize your CTAs to more effectively engage them.

Check out the Locations tab to see where your clicks are coming from. (Image: Google)

For example, the following chart provides insights into the purchase behavior of several contrasting cultures, as well as some strategies you can follow to fulfill their unique needs and expectations:

Retailers must base their strategies on the specific preferences of consumers in different countries.

International Business Best Practices

Separate your campaigns by different languages

When you want to conduct a language experiment on your advertising campaign, separate it from other campaigns so the results don’t skew your existing efforts. Don’t use the same budget, as your results will vary across cultures.

If you decide to incorporate another language into your advertising, don’t forget about distinct dialects. In Spanish alone, there are six words for “bus” depending on which Spanish-speaking country you’re in. This is an important consideration when choosing keywords to use in your campaign. Enlisting the help of Google Translate or a native speaker could ease this process.

TAKE YOUR DIGITAL STRATEGY GLOBAL

Understanding cultural differences is an essential ingredient in the success of international retailers, especially in terms of PPC advertising. Know the cultures you want to target and make an effort to understand their values.

Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory can help you understand and compare the underlying values of different cultures. It’s up to you to conduct your own research and experiment to determine the best ways to reach your audience. We applied Hofstede’s cultural dimensions to build successful, tailored ad campaigns for Lenovo EMEA, one of our international clients. You can read about our approach on our case studies page.

We also recommend checking out our Keyword Performance Analyzer. This free tool will show you which keywords are contributing the most to the success of your campaigns. You can see whether terms are having an impact in specific locations and identify opportunities for growth around the world.

Last updated May 24, 2019.