Why Global Brands, Technology Will Not Destroy Local Culture

"Will global brands and technology bring the end of cultural differences?". This is a question I have been asked many times in culture workshops over the years by people who have seen familiar logos and products wherever they go. The answer is definitely no; cultural differences will continue to persist as they have always done so and here are three reasons why.

1. CULTURE IS MUCH DEEPER THAN BRANDS  Just because Coca Cola, McDonalds, Kikkoman and other global brands are pretty much everywhere does not mean that the consumers have all adopted the same culture. Culture is much deeper than the superficial signs that you see around you and concerns much more the attitudes that people have to time, relationships, the world around them and so on. Culture at this level is not directly visible -- though you can sometimes see visible signs, like when someone bows to a superior -- and in some cases people are not even aware of their own culture. American fast food chains can  successfully export their products and their business model but they still operate within the context of a local culture. The "employee of the month", for example, is a management technique that works in the individualistic USA but is perceived in a very different way in other cultures. Local managers follow the company rule book and select the employee but are aware that this is seen as a negative incentive -- sometimes shameful or at best embarrassing to the employee singled out in this way.

2. YOU CAN ADOPT TECHNOLOGY WITHOUT CULTURE. People all over the world have adopted the world-wide web and many other technologies, but this does not mean that they also adopt the original cultural context. Try, for example, to build a wiki in an Asian company and you will find that their different attitudes to hierarchy make it hard to convince people to edit the pages created by others. You see it also in the different ways people use social media. This is hardly a new observation. In the seventies people across the globe adopted Japanese Walkman personal cassette player technology, but they did not adopt the original Japanese concept of using headphone to avoid disturbing other people; they used them to avoid others disturbing them. Many other technologies have been adopted globally in the past independently of the culture of the creators. Almost everyone adopted "Arabic" numerals during the middle ages, but they did not adopt the Hindu culture that created them. Later people adopted steam power, electricity, radio, TV and many other good ideas, always without the original cultural matrix. In earlier times the same happened presumably with stone tools, fire and iron working.

3. CULTURE IS A DYNAMIC, RESILIENT PHENOMENON. Regardless of brands and technologies, cultures tend to persist because they are much more resilient than people imagine. Today people grumble that the world-wide web undermines local cultures but to be fair they said exactly the same about radio, TV and Hollywood movies. In spite of a century of movies cultural differences are still going strong and many countries have evolved their own independent movie cultures. Try comparing also American and Indian dating websites to see how the same idea and the same technology can lead to radically different implementations. Yes, the whole world has embraced the idea of having dating sites but the way they work is very different. At the same time cultures can and do change. Some aspects of your culture will be lost in your own lifetime, but this is how culture works. The culture you have today is a mixture of innovations -- like mutations in the cultural DNA -- and borrowings from other cultures.. Many of the notions of western law come from the Romans, and many concepts of politics come from Greece.. Maybe today China imports The Simpsons but they have contributed many things to western culture over the years -- including such concepts as using written tests to choose the best person for a job. Some aspects of culture might align with a cultural import, but at the same time new subcultures emerge that are the seeds of new trends. I don't believe it is even possible to have a standard global culture. There have even been some deliberate attempts in history to forcibly standardize a culture, rarely with any success even when the most violent means are used.

So to answer the original question: no, neither global brands nor new technologies will ever create a uniform global culture. Maybe you see that there is a McDonalds wherever you go, but look more closely at how it fits into the local cultural context. When someone says "Meet you at McDo (that's what the French call it) at 4pm" do you expect they will be there at 16:00:00 or maybe 15 minutes later.  Do men and women who are not married to each other sit at the same table? Do people pay separately or does someone insist on paying for everyone?  Apart from the signs, you will find that almost everything else is actually different if you look carefully enough.

Related posts about intercultural topics:

Doing Business in Italy: Three Key Concepts You Need to Know
Cultural Stereotypes in Cartoons: Do Germans Really Wear Monocles
Doing Business in Sweden Three Things You Need to Know
How Building Team Culture Makes Global Teams More Effective
Culture and Technology. How Cultural Factors Impact Engineering Decisions
Why the Office Weasel Can Play a Useful Role in Hierarchical Organizations
Managing Across Cultures Three Non-obvious Issues to Watch For
Three Non-Obvious Ways Culture Affects Email 
Three Non-Obvious Issues in Multicultural Meetings  
Culture, Innovation and the Curious Case of Pandora Radio.  

Lectures, Workshops, Coaching, Writing
For lectures, workshops, personal coaching and writing on this and other communication topics visit http://andrewhennigan.com, email speaker@andrewhennigan.com or call 0046 73 089 44 75.


Hanna said…
Hello Andrew,

I fully agree with you! Thanks for this very interesting post!

Kind regards from São Paulo,
Andrew Hennigan said…
Hi Hanna, Thanks for the feedback. Glad you found it useful!
Natalia said…
Hi Andrew, I agree with your views. we discussed this long ago in a group of interculturalists in LinkedIn and someone wrote about Mc Donald´s that it is quite different the way people see it all over. Whereas in Europe is a rather cheap place for young people, but not for an elegant date, in other cultures it is seen as a top place to go.

I like the examples you use to support your points and I am thinking that I might translate the post into spanish to include it in my blog (quoting the source of course) if you agree.

Andrew Hennigan said…
Hi Natalia,

Yes, i do agree. Send me a link when it is online and I will tweet it, too.


Popular posts from this blog

Dear Best Regards: How to Start and End Your Emails

Reverting to Emails: Confusion and the Indian English Language

TED’s Magical Red Carpet