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Hofstede’s theory of cultural dimensions is a framework for understanding cultural differences. It’s still highly relevant for international marketers. Find out more.

Hofstede’s theory of cultural dimensions: Why it’s relevant to international marketing

Despite globalisation, the world is not uniform and no two markets are identical. Consumer behaviour both on and offline, tone of voice, payment preferences, linguistic style and convention, the symbolism attached to different colours and imagery – all vary across cultures. Many of these differences are subtle and not always obvious.

Hofstede’s theory of cultural dimensions provides a framework for understanding. Geert Hofstede developed his theory following a worldwide survey of employee values by IBM between 1967 and 1973. His survey was conducted in two rounds and was completed by 160,000 employees from 72 countries in 20 languages. Since then, the fieldwork has been revisited and the original findings have been shown to be stable over time.

 

The original theory proposed four dimensions along which cultural values could be analysed:

  • Individualism versus collectivism
  • Uncertainty avoidance
  • Power distance
  • Masculinity versus femininity

 

Hofstede later added two further dimensions:

  • Long term orientation
  • Indulgence versus self-restraint

 

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

 

Individualism versus collectivism

The extent to which members of a society want to be left alone to look after themselves or want to remain in a tightknit network.

  • Individualistic countries place great importance on attaining personal goals
  • Collectivistic countries place great importance on the group as a whole

 

Uncertainty avoidance

The extent to which people in society are not at ease with uncertainty and ambiguity.

  • High uncertainty avoidance countries have low tolerance for ambiguity and risks, and attempt to control them through rules and regulations
  • Low uncertainty avoidance countries are more open to ambiguity and risks, and have more relaxed rules and regulations

 

Power distance

The extent to which less powerful members of society expect and accept that the distribution of power is not equal.

  • High power distance countries accept inequity and power differences, and have great respect for rank and authority
  • Low power distance countries tend to have organisational structures which are flat, and favour decentralised decision-making and collaborative styles of management

 

Masculinity versus femininity

In this dimension, “masculinity” is defined as a societal preference for achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material rewards for success. By contrast, “femininity” is defined as a preference for co-operation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life.

  • Masculine countries tend to have distinct gender roles and prize material achievements and wealth-building
  • Feminine countries tend to have more fluid gender roles and value quality of life

 

Long-term orientation

Long-term orientation means a willingness to delay short-term material or social success or even short-term emotional gratification to prepare for the future.

  • Long-term orientation involves delaying gratification to achieve long-term success. Countries with this attribute value persistence, perseverance, saving and being able to adapt
  • Short-term orientation involves placing a stronger emphasis on living for the present than the future

 

Indulgence versus self-restraint

This dimension considers the extent and tendency of a society to fulfil its desires. It revolves around how societies can control their impulses.

  • Indulgence indicates a country that allows relatively free gratification related to enjoying life and having fun
  • Restraint indicates a society that suppresses gratification of needs and regulates it through social norms

 

Why is Hofstede’s theory relevant to marketers?

Hofstede’s theory has significant implications for international marketers. For example:

  • If you want to market cars in a country where uncertainty avoidance is high, then playing up the safety aspects is a good idea.
  • If you want to advertise mobile phones, then in China you might emphasise the collective experience whereas in the USA you might focus on how an individual uses their phone to save time and money.
  • In countries with low masculinity, highly gendered products and marketing messages may be frowned up and taking a gender-neutral approach to your marketing would be a good idea.
  • In high indulgence countries, you might find that “sex sells” whereas in low indulgence countries, it might be more appropriate to promote the social benefits of your products, their usefulness and how they fit into the existing social order.

Hofstede’s theory is also useful for website designers who need to tailor user journeys and user experience for different cultures. It is important to remember that countries which are not geographically close can share cultural similarities, and the converse is also true. This is one of the most important tips for international marketers who often have to group markets together, given finite resource.  The best groupings are not always geographical.

Whilst there are limitations to Hofstede’s model, and some of the terminology may be considered stereotypical by today’s standards, it remains useful in making sense of differences across cultures. At Oban, we often ask our LIMEs (Local in-Market Experts) to check their country against the model and tell us what they think, and they usually tell us the model rings true. International marketers can use Hofstede’s theory to inform their messaging, creative work, channel selection and more, in each of their target markets.

 

Hofstede country comparison tool

Hofstede Insights is a great resource to explore in greater detail the theory of cultural dimensions and how to apply it to real world situations. The site has a useful country comparisons tool which allows you to compare different countries according to Hofstede’s theory.

 

Oban can help

Greater awareness and understanding of key cultural dimensions can you help you communicate more effectively with customers across different markets and regions. By tailoring your marketing messages to each target market, and by displaying cultural sensitivity, you can maximise international opportunities and avoid costly mistakes. Oban can help – find out how by getting in touch.

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This is an edited extract from Oban’s book Going Global: How to improve digital marketing performance in any market on the planet. To buy a copy of the book, click here.


Oban International is the digital marketing agency specialising in international expansion. Our LIME (Local In-Market Expert) Network provides up to date cultural input and insights from over 80 markets around the world, helping clients realise the best marketing opportunities and avoid the costliest mistakes.