Language can be interpreted in different ways depending on the social context and the mindset of all participants in a conversation, sometimes with dramatically diverging conclusions. While this may be OK in private communication, in the sphere of business it can cause serious and potentially costly misunderstandings or disagreements.
With this in mind, marketing professionals must always be aware of the wider context when they are crafting central messages for their campaigns. That’s especially true when there is a need to communicate with multiple target groups or with users that have a radically different social background than what the company is accustomed to.
On a more general level, we can talk about the difference between low vs. high context marketing strategies and the main advantages of each approach for the realization of key business objectives.
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Low context culture is a term that describes environments that are mostly free from strong semantic undercurrents that shape the understanding of each message. This concept was first introduced in the 1970s by the anthropologist Edward T. Hall, and it found application in many fields. Consequently, low context marketing is a type of promotion that doesn’t primarily rely on highly specific factors related to a locality or certain customer demographics to make a point. Messages in this marketing paradigm tend to be more universal and applicable across a wider spectrum of situations.
Organizations engaging in low-context marketing can mostly stick to their bread-and-butter messages, without having to adjust them for each market. However, by using a less sophisticated, one-size-fits-all approach businesses might miss some opportunities to establish organic connections with well-defined groups of customers. Context-agnostic strategies should thus be considered only when the main objective is to deliver simple, clear, and low-risk messages to a broad audience.
By contrast, high-context marketing aims to derive its effectiveness from a high degree of localization and customization. It starts from the fact that many target areas have strong cultural influences that impact how incoming communications may be understood, but rather than avoiding the nuances of multi-cultural discourse the marketers tend to embrace them. Ideally, high-context marketing campaigns should be formulated in a manner that fully acknowledges, references, and celebrates the cultural norms that are predominant among the intended recipients of the messages.
Within this approach, brands can find unique ways of interacting with customers and presenting their commercial offers without running afoul of the local customs. Each message needs to reflect a deeper understanding of key values and principles, as well as the context in which the product or service could be perceived. Details must be correctly applied, while the general look and feel should fit into the wider narrative that connects the brand with its customers. High-context marketing is certainly difficult to get right, but when it works the results are simply amazing.
Both types of campaigns can use the same channels and promote the same business objectives, but there are significant differences regarding the creative as well as logistical side of the project. In addition to different focus and priorities, there are many other tangible distinctions between these approaches that marketers should be aware of. Most of them arise from the need to include additional elements when trying to use a high context strategy compared to a more straightforward nature of low context marketing communications.
Here is a list of dissimilarities that is by no means final or exhaustive:
Social relations around the world differ from one country to another so it’s difficult to provide a definitive ranking in terms of high vs. low context culture. However, some parts of the world are considered to be more traditional and more entwined in their unique cultural discourse, which makes them more enigmatic to marketers. This factor is not directly related to the level of economic development, type of government, or macro political orientation, and has more to do with the fabric of the local community than with any policies consciously pursued by that nation or its leaders.
To clarify this principle, let’s look at two examples that perfectly demonstrate the contrast between these two types of international markets.
Islamic nations are often regarded as very highly context-oriented since they insist on local interpretation of social norms in almost every sphere of life. Saudi Arabia is one of the leading economies in the Middle East, but according to many sources, it is quite difficult for foreign businessmen to get accustomed to the local way of life and social etiquette.
Since even basic things such as food and clothing are directly influenced by traditional values, companies trying to advertise to locals have many obstacles to navigate. Furthermore, local citizens prefer an indirect style of communication, where opinions are presented less forcefully. Another key factor is that any communication involving women must be conducted with extreme respect toward religious and social customs. All this makes it tricky to launch a marketing campaign in Saudi Arabia without first seeking input from native-born experts.
On the other hand, English-speaking countries with globalized economies are often seen as very friendly to outsiders, with Australia as one of the best examples. With a large percentage of urban, highly educated population and an open and democratic society, this country is actively seeking input from other cultures (i.e. American or Asian) and features quite a lot of internal diversity.
Doing business in Australia is not without its challenges and context-blind efforts to push a global narrative can still backfire badly, but there is far less risk that locals might fail to understand the messages or the style of humor. There is also quite a few foreign-born citizens living in Australia, which adds to its cultural richness and readiness to accept new things.
How much does the geographic origin of the brand impact the choice between high and low context marketing campaign?
The decision whether to use high or low-context marketing strategy is driven more by the target market than the home market of the brand. However, companies coming from high context cultures may be more prepared to cater to the delicate sensibilities of foreign customers.
Which industries are more suitable for executing a high context marketing strategy?
Companies selling infrastructural development, high technology, or industrial goods have less reason to worry about cultural factors, at least compared to lifestyle brands. Industries such as cosmetics, fashion, tourism, entertainment and food/drinks have the strongest incentives to use high context strategies when operating in foreign markets.
What are common reasons for the failure of high-context marketing efforts?
Insufficient research, lack of insight from native citizens, too close replication of the worldwide messages, and inauthentic cultural appropriation are among the main reasons why high-context marketing campaigns sometimes fail to hit the target and even cause damage to the brand’s reputation.
In the age of global business, few companies can survive by focusing solely on their home markets. The international expansion brings the dilemma of whether to use a low context or high-context approach to cross-border marketing. Low-context cultures are less challenging for incoming marketers, and allow them to use their original marketing messages with only minor modifications. Meanwhile, highly specific cultural environments might require a total reimagining of the campaign so that the local buyers can truly relate to it. Both concepts can be successful, but it’s important to recognize which one is more optimal for the circumstances you are facing.