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Reducing cultural shock with global brands and advertising

Eliane Karsaklian - Advancia-Negocia


This paper aims at demonstrating that expatriates represent a specific target for companies as they
tend to consume global brands during their stay abroad in order to avoid cultural shock and thus
should be addressed with specific communication. The literature review articulates global brands
and advertising with cultural shock, explained on the basis of Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner’s
dilemmas’ theory. The qualitative method used in this research were 53 in-depth interviews.
Results demonstrated that expatriates relay on well-known brands to adapt to new environments
when they are abroad and that specific advertising help them to reconcile dilemmas.

Key words: Global brands, advertising, expatriates, cultural shock


Economic and social factors are working to increase global competition and global operations, and
subsequently an acceleration of traffic in expatriation and repatriation. Johansson and Ronkainen
(2005) state that research shows that one of the most common features of a globally integrated
marketing strategy is the adoption of one brand name around the world, whereas Callow and
Schiffman (2002) talk about how advertising interpretations are dependent on cultural factors of
the viewer. Therefore, the present paper is relevant because it demonstrates that particular
attention should be drawn to expatriates during their sojourn abroad. While struggling to adjust
both as individuals and professionals, expatriates should deal with uncertainty and risk taking.
They should also face different behavioral patterns, which could be explained by the more
individualistic or more communitarian orientation (Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner, 2006) of
home and host cultures. Thus, this article aims at providing some understanding of the role played
by global brands and advertising in expatriates’ search for cultural shock reduction.

Global brands and advertising

With the globalization of markets, there are more opportunities to create market potential through
stimulating demand for products with universal appeal (Hassan et al., 2003). Thompson (2004)
talks about an emerging stream of consumer research that suggests a far more encompassing and
significant interrelationship between cultural processes and structures and brand meanings that just
the brand image. Brands create unique identities for a firm’s products in the eyes of its consumers
(Keller, 2003). According to Strizhakova et al. (2008), consumers co-create brand meanings and
brands become powerful because of their multiple meanings including self-identity, group-identity
and national traditions. As one of the fundamental social processes in every culture, marketing
communication has been used to exert a strong impact on consumer attitudes and behaviors
(Watson et al., 2002). When individuals feel positive they believe that the environment is safe,
thus a positive frame will generally be more effective than a negative frame (Chang, 2008). In the
specific case of this research, positive frame should be understood as giving cues for better
adjusting to the host culture thanks to dilemmas’ reconciliation. Global brand was defined by
Steenkamp et al (2003) as the one that the consumers can find under the same name in multiple
countries, while Holt et al (2004) see global branding as the one that relates to a standardization of
products, packaging and communications. The negative attitudes and feelings of an inescapable
loss of country differences created by the vision of same brands and same advertising everywhere
(Kapferer, 2005) in tourists and other ephemeral travelers is positive to expatriates that look for

stability and familiarity when freshly arrived in the host country. Indeed, risk-averse consumers
feel threatened by ambiguous and uncertain product assessments (Erdem et al., 2006). When there
is quality uncertainty, consumers tend to search more information before making a decision, but
information may not be available or credible and they will consequently be guided by brand
familiarity. Previous literature has found that the symbolic meaning of brands indicates that brand
names are an important symbol of group identity, mainly in collectivistic cultures (Johansson et
al., 1994).


International consumer research fundamentally focuses in understanding consumer differences from

the cultural, social, economic and other marketing elements perspective and in the search for
common groups of consumers across countries, for international marketing segmentation purposes,
that is, the emergence of global consumers. Cultural differences are clearly influenced by life
experiences of people from different countries and cultures and may be the primary obstacle in
developing internationally accepted brands and communicating with global consumers (Jun and
Lee, 2007). Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner (2006) suggested seven new cultural dimensions to
solve the limits of the widely used Hofstedes’s and Hall’s theories. The new dimensions being
universalism versus particularism, individualism versus communitarianism, neutral versus
emotional, specific versus diffuse, achievement versus ascription, orientation to time and attitudes
towards the environment. The current study focuses on the individualism versus communitarianism
dimension since it encapsulates most part of situations experienced by expatriates during their
sojourn abroad. Moreover, the researches carried out by Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner include
a larger scope of countries than the Hofstede’s model with a similar concept (individualism versus
collectivism). Cleveland and Laroche (2007), argue that market researchers and practitioners should
utilize individuals rather than countries as cultural unit of analysis for market segmentation.
Acculturating is facing cultural shock which is the experience consumers have when interacting
with other cultures. As Martin and Chaney (2006) underline, we like things we are accustomed to
having them. The individual has a set of values established for several years, when suddenly he/she
must accept a different one. According to Lewis (2006), “our precious values and unshakeable core
beliefs take a battering when we venture abroad”.


Wherever and whenever the term expatriate was originated, the notion has been existing for
thousands of years, as it was defined as someone who lived and worked overseas (McCall and
Hollenbeck, 2002). When a person moves to another culture, the problem is not the difficulty
inherent to the host culture, but the difficulty linked to the difference between home and host
countries. As a consumer, the difficulty is getting familiar and trusting unknown products and
brands. When first examining adjustment among expatriates, researchers focused on obvious
aspects such as food, weather and daily customs, but more recently, authors added other related
dimensions that are adjustment to the job, interacting with host-country individuals and to the
general nonworking environment (Stroh et al, 2005).

Research design

In this article, and given our focus on global brands and advertising as tools to reduce cultural
shock, it is likely that the most relevant cultural dimension to be considered is individualism versus
communitarianism as it translates the conflict between what each of us wants as an individual, and
the interests of the group we belong to (Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner, 2006). Expatriates’
lives can be represented by permanent dilemma that consists on being part of their culture of origin
and becoming part of the host culture during a limited amount of time. Differently from immigrants

that aim to live forever in the host country or from tourists that should not adjust but only enjoy
cultural differences, expatriates’ adaptation is ephemeral as their unique goal is to accomplish a
specific mission before going back home. Needless to say, our focus on individualism versus
communitarianism dimension does not imply that other cultural dimensions are irrelevant to
understand expatriates’ relationship with brands and advertising. It merely reflects the fact that
culture being a complex whole it cannot be explained by one unique dimension, as well as this
study being exploratory, it was not possible to encompass all seven of them. Thereby and as it has
been done in previous research (Jun and Lee, 2007; Erdem et al., 2006), only the individualism
versus communitarianism dimension was used in the present research. Moreover, this dimension
better represents the barriers of day to day life and the term communitarianism translates the idea of
becoming part of a “community”, which is, adjusting. As Thompson and Tambyah (1999) stated,
consumption is often the site of struggle of sociocultural impediments as not being par of the
community yet and experiential tensions became salient in expatriates’ everyday lives. One of the
differences between individualistic and communitarian cultures pointed out by Trompenaars and
Hampden-Turner is the more frequent use of the “I” form by individualistic cultures and the “We”
form by the communitarians, it is therefore paramount to identify linguistic behavior of the target
population (Pan et al, 2008) before designing advertising.

Objectives and Method

The main purpose of the present paper is to understand in which measure expatriates use global
brands and advertising as tools for better adjusting to the host culture. Based on the previous
discussion we stated research questions as an exploratory step to examine the individualistic and
communitarian dimension influence on expatriates’ behavior. Our aim was to understand in which
measure global brands, as well known references could play a role in helping expatriates to adjust,
and how could advertising representing dilemma reconciliation show expatriates behavioral patterns
accepted in both home and host cultures. Our reading is based on the textual data from verbatim
transcripts of depth interviews (Thompson and Tambyah, 1999). Indeed, consumption experience is
associated with both feeling of great intensity and translation of ongoing activities into reportable
stories (Carù and Cova, 2008). In the specific case of cross-cultural research, conduction of
personal interviews is analyzing cultural meanings and practices through which members of a
culture construct social reality (Moisander and Valtonen, 2006). No quantitative approach could
provide this type of data. The chosen method was useful to gather specific answers to narrow
questions without searching for a wide variety of data, as recommended by Czinkota and Ronkainen
(2001). Interviewees were first asked to react to an image which allowed to qualify them as
individualistics or communitarians. The next step was asking participants to associate brands to
images; tell about the brands they had bought abroad for 5 product categories and to describe the
way they reduce uncertainty regarding brands when they are abroad. The two final assignments
were to choose a global brand and describe the advertisement they would like to see for it in a
foreign country and creating a story board for a given product, during which task we observed if
they used more the “I” form or the “We” form. All interviews were conducted in France. French
participants (n=30) were interviewed after re-entry while international interviewees (n=23)
participated in the research during their expatriation. The countries taking part in this research were:
US, Spain, South Africa, UK, South Korea, Russia, Poland, Germany, Colombia, France and China.


Although the two samples were exposed to the same stimuli, results will be presented separately,
because French participants were interviewed after re-entry, thus their responses were retrieved
from memory, while International participants answered in real time. Moreover, some countries
were represented by few participants and it would be unfair to compare them with 30 French
respondents, although previous research has treated responses from less than 15 participants from

different countries, without searching for a balance among those countries and the length of time
spent abroad (Thompson and Tambyah, 1999).

The French sample

When asked to associate brands to images, French participants evoked only French brands like
Moët for Party, Le Petit Marseillais for Family, Air France and Club Med for Travel, Reflets de
France for Nostalgia and Danone, Le Président and Bridélice for France. The brands bought
abroad were more international as Renault, Fiat and Toyota for Cars, Nestlé and Kellogg’s for
Cereals, Nivea and Dove for Skin Care, Jack Daniels, Heineken and Martini for Alcoholic
Beverages and Coca-Cola and Dr. Pepper for Sodas. When exposed to the image showing a
penguin in a crowd, French respondents interpretation was that it needed help and that it was an
exception. When French participants were to reduce uncertainty regarding brands during their stay
abroad, they trusted international brands and let advertising guide their decision making. French
respondents would appreciate to see the same advertisements for the same products abroad and
would create an advertisement for a car featuring the family.

The International sample

Brands associated to images by the International participants were Coca-Cola, Bacardi and
Pringle’s for Party, Disneyland, Lay’s, Samesung and Nestlé for Family, EasyJet and Samsonite
for Travel, Toshiba, Johnson’s & Johnson’s, Wedel and Nike for Nostalgia, and Bordeaux,
Peugeot, Chanel et L’Oréal for France. The brands bought abroad were Renault, Samsung, Seat,
Honda and Fiat for Cars, Nestlé and Kellogg’s for Cereals, Nivea, L’Oréal and Dove for Skin
Care, Smirnoff, Carlsberg, Kronenbourg and Malibu for Alcoholic Beverages, and Coke, Pepsi
and Sprite for Sodas.

Exposed to the image with the penguins, participants from more communitarian countries expressed
feelings of being part of the crowd like all the others, while the more individualistic stated that we
should stand out of the crowd and that difference was not bad, and should be accepted. Regarding
uncertainty reduction with brands, International participants agreed that the more there are
advertisements, the better is the brand, and that they choose known brands. Indeed, global brands
have the ability to show consumers that they can obtain same benefits from a product category
wherever they are over the world and that is why companies should not hide globality (Johansson
and Ronkainen, 2005) as it can be a real asset for expatriates. Independently on their home culture,
the type of advertising participants would like to see abroad would be the same ad for the same
brands, with slight local adaptation as it is important to well recognize the brand. The ad should also
help them to understand the local culture and feature local celebrities. Finally, participants from
more individualistic countries designed advertising based on few people and business people, while
the more collective ones, addressed family and friends. As expected, respondents from
individualistic countries used more often the “I” form while interviewees from communitarian
cultures talked more in general terms as “in my country we would prefer to see…”. Verbatims
from both French and International respondents demonstrated that well-known brands “allow you
not to feel that disorientated”; “it allows you to continue using brands that you already know”;
“they help you to feel less alone” and “they show that you are not so different from the local
people”. They also expressed their relationship with advertising: “the ad should help me to
understand the local culture”, “I let ads guide my decision and show me what is acceptable”, “In my
country, we would prefer advertisements that show us how to behave in specific situations in order
to be in the norms”. Finally, we can say that although no differences were observed between the
two samples as French participants acted like other interviewees from communitarian countries.
This can probably be explained by the fact that participants in this study represent a fairly diverse
collection of national and ethnic backgrounds, their collective pursuit of a cosmopolitan identity
project fosters some key commonalities among their respective self-conceptions, personal goals and
outlooks toward travel Thompson and Tambyah, 1999).

Managerial Implications

The current study has several meaningful managerial implications. First, the findings of this study
provide brand management guidelines for the multinational marketers and advertisers attempting to
reach the specific target composed of expatriates all over the world. From the marketing point of
view, using brands and advertising to help them to adjust is creating a long term relationship with
expatriates that will tend to be loyal to those brands in all countries in which they are sold. Erdem et
al. (2006) advise companies execute communication campaigns that reinforce brands’ ability to
either reduce risk or generate group identification. These suggestions would perfectly fit in with the
risk-aversion situation experienced by expatriates and their social acceptance needs. So far,
marketing research has focused on different consumers from different countries and has led
companies to locally adapt their brands and communication strategies. Few researches focused on
this mobile target although the number of expatriates increases every year (Quelch, 1999). While
some authors recommend to adapt communication to local cultural values (Jun and Lee, 2007), our
findings suggest to base brand communication on dilemmas reconciliation when attempting to reach
expatriates. This communication approach allows companies and brands to demonstrate closeness
and complicity with expatriates by showing them that they are understood. The contribution of the
present research is twofold. From the research point of view, it provides new insights about this too
often forgot target that are the expatriates which represents a growing and specific consumption
market. Regarding brand and advertising management, evidence from this research leads to the
possibility of establishing a closer and more durable relationship with this specific target and
develop a cross-cultural loyalty from the same consumers.

Limitations and future research directions

The main limitations of this research are the restricted sample, that was predominantly composed by
French individuals and its exploratory approach. Although internationals were interviewed during
their expatriation, they were only 23 and from limited number of countries. Finally, evidence from
this research did not allow to draw any differences between French and international participants. It
seems that in this particular case, French respondents experience with brands and advertising did
not diminish through time. Their responses were more likely to be correlated with their
communitarian culture than with a vanishing experience. Thereby, it would be worth to more
deeply analyze if the strength of the relationship consumers establish with brands and advertising
during expatriation can result in a long term relationship with them, that is, brand loyalty.


International marketers and researchers focus on cultural differences to better understand and satisfy
consumers from different countries. Brand equity, brand familiarity, country of origin effect among
many other paramount issues in marketing have been analyzed in a country by country approach.
Although many brands target global audiences, researchers and practitioners have neglected this
growing target that is composed of people that are never locals, but try to survive in several
different cultural environments. In each country, including their home one, they will be adjusting
without being totally integrated, as they know they will leave after having accomplished their
assignments. Thereby, it is relevant to companies to provide this target with brands that will follow
them in all assignments which will communicate with them by using advertising campaigns
expatriates can identify themselves with, thanks to dilemmas’ reconciliation.


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