Since the beginning of advertising, successful marketers have recognized the importance of consumer research. And it has long been accepted that consumer research should establish how promotional offers can satisfy the needs of customers in specific target markets.

The analysis presented in this article suggests that the cultural context (the social, technological, political, economic, and physical environment) of consumers should set the foundation for understanding how to satisfy their needs and for meeting their expectations. This article will explore why cultural target market research should be analyzed to qualify relevant content and viable consumers.

Why is cultural understanding important to online marketing?

Culture is significant to online marketing because it establishes the foundation for how consumers think, communicate, and process information (Chaffey 2009, Sing and Pereira 2005, Smith et al. 2004, Sudhir et al. 2007). By providing contextual information about potential consumers, cultural target market research sets the stage for strategic targeted marketing, and it is the foundation for online promotional content.

Chaffey (2009) contends that understanding the cultural background of prospects and customers is fundamental to traditional marketing and is equally important online. The culture of online consumers should be embodied in promotional content that is consistent with cultural expectations. Online marketers (Chaffey 2009, Singh and Pereira 2005) have begun to recognize the importance of this cultural connection by advocating localization and customization based on the location and cultural background of their clients' target audience.

If we consider how we might disconnect online content from culture and attempt to communicate with consumers without a cultural foundation, we will quickly conclude that this is a futile exercise. In other words, it's impossible to disconnect the Web from culture because online content is generated via the cultural filter of the folks who produce content (designers, marketers, advertisers, corporations, governments, etc.).

In fact, contemporary researchers assert that the entire Web represents a cultural document that emulates cultural values and ideals, as well as cultural standards of economic exchange and communication (Singh, Furrer, and Massimilaino: 2004). By including cultural research as a component of target market research, online marketers and their clients have an opportunity to embrace and capitalize on cultural variation by producing culturally relevant content that is consistent with the ideals and expectations of a specific cultural group.

After all, traditional advertisements (TV, radio, and print) in American culture resonate with you because they are designed to be consistent with your cultural expectations. One can easily take that for granted, since, as Americans, we are consistently and effectively targeted by "Americanized" marketing initiatives with familiar imagery, symbols, jargon, references, language, etc.

Contemporary research indicates that online promotional content is most effective when it is consistent with the cultural expectations of consumers. Those findings also confirm that target market research that facilitates this cultural connection with consumers is both necessary and profitable (Chaffey 2009). This approach to target market research has been applied since the 1950s, when successful international corporations began marketing in earnest in contexts other than their native culture. Of course, some notable cultural blunders come to mind.

For example, in 1970, American Motors marketed a car named Matador (which means killer in Spanish) in Puerto Rico. That was a monumental cultural error because in Puerto Rico bullfighting had been outlawed for more than 100 years and was considered inhumane and offensive. That example demonstrates how the translation of the car's name and the behavior that the name inferred were both culturally offensive and certainly led to a lack of return on investment (ROI) for American Motors. That is one of many such cultural errors companies have made because of a lack of cultural target market research. Companies such as American Motors quickly learned the importance of tailoring content (language, colors, symbols, behavioral expectations, etc.) to the cultural expectations of a target market.
Despite such lessons from the international marketing efforts of brick-and-mortar companies, a review of current marketing industry standards about consumer research indicates that the importance of culture as a means of qualifying online consumers is not yet fully recognized and integrated into industry lexicon.

For example, the American Marketing Association defines Environmental Analysis as follows: "The gathering and analyzing of data about a company's or nation's external environment to identify trends and their impact upon an organization or country. Included among the environmental forces considered are the political, cultural, social, demographic, economic, legal, international, and ecological factors."

Rather than considering an environmental analysis from the perspective of a corporation, one might instead prioritize the environment from the perspective of potential consumers. Culture should also be recognized as part of the internal environment, and the AMA's definition could apply to cultural target market analysis so long as we recognize that cultural research for targeting is done within and across national borders. Therefore, analyzing the status quo reveals that cultural research might fall under the umbrella heading of an environmental analysis if it is understood that all the components of an environmental analysis are cultural variables.

On the other hand, just because we can squeeze cultural analysis for marketing applications into a model, will doing so account for the holistic nature of this culturally qualifying approach? Rather than re-inventing this outdated and incomplete contextual model, marketers may find it more productive to refer differently to the cultural approach advocated here. Having a common reference for prioritizing cultural research in an online marketing context may be more productive as well. This analysis suggests adopting cultural qualification as a term to describe the application of cultural knowledge as the foundation for understanding the connection between promotional offers and the cultural context of a target audience.

How should cultural understanding affect the practice of online marketing?

Understanding the cultural context of a local, regional, or national target audience provides perspective for engaging the research agenda of a specific marketing initiative. Just because a potential consumer can access your client's online content doesn't mean that the offer or the content is relevant.

Online marketers and their clients must therefore recognize that just because a website is accessible worldwide doesn't mean that the content is relevant to a global audience. Though your clients' content can be accessed across the world, your clients' target population is not the world population.

Unfortunately, without cultural target market research, consumers with different backgrounds are being culturally disqualified because content is perceived as foreign and unfamiliar to them. Rather than becoming culturally qualified via culturally customized content, these potential consumers will most likely continue searching for content that resonates with their cultural expectations.

Elements of specific cultures provide the contextual framework for how consumers with different cultural backgrounds interpret and perceive the world, including Web content. Companies and online marketing consultants should maximize relevance and consumer receptivity by prioritizing cultural research as a component of their initial target market analysis.

Contemporary empirical research (Singh and Pereira 2005) has shown that consumers with different cultural backgrounds demonstrate different consumer behaviors and are most receptive to content that is consistent with cultural expectations. Therefore, to maximize relevance, receptivity, and ROI, companies should customize Web design and promotional content based on cultural expectations of their target market.

Singh and Pereira contend the following: "The diversity of cultures that make up the global marketplace necessitates customizing websites to the needs of customers from specific countries and cultures" (Singh and Pereira 2005: 18). Rather than excluding and disqualifying potential consumers, marketers should see the value in respecting target populations' cultural expectations.

How is cultural qualification applied as an online marketing strategy?

If we think of the cultural qualification concept as a funnel marketing strategy, then culture represents the initial filter that provides the context for culturally customized marketing tactics designed to lead consumers toward a conversion.

Cultural understanding provides the structure for promotional content that's consistent with expectations and perceptions of consumers from specific cultural backgrounds. When consumers are culturally qualified at the start of a marketing funnel, familiar cultural expectations have a positive impact on the decisions they make as they move down the funnel toward conversion.
The following are some questions to address when conducting target market research to culturally qualify content and consumers for online marketing:

  • What cultural design elements (language, color, images and their inferred meanings, symbols, gender depictions, etc.) can be incorporated to enhance the connection with your customers?
  • How can you customize content for culturally qualified search engine marketing (PPC, display ads, and granular messaging elements, including phraseology) to reflect those values?

Contemporary research demonstrates that purchase intentions are higher with websites containing culturally customized content and design elements (Singh and Periera 2005), and cultural qualification starts with the goal of understanding customers and providing them with content from the perspective of their cultural context. That qualifying step toward cultural marketing relevance represents the process of researching and designing marketing initiatives to maximize relevance to a specific cultural or ethnic group.

Cultural qualification as a goal of target market research should consider whether your company is seeking to satisfy the needs of a local, regional, national, or multinational customer base. Define the locations of the most-likely consumers of your clients' products or services. Next, identify how the cultural and geographic context of the target market should affect promotional content and synthesize cultural context with promotional content, thereby connecting culturally qualified consumers with culturally qualified offers.

Ideally, cultural qualification research should be combined with geotargeting to synthesize content for the people and places inside a targeted geographic area, thereby creating more relevant content across and within national boundaries. Cultural targeting can and should be local, regional, national, or multinational depending on the cultural makeup of a target population. Therefore, cultural qualification (and cultural relevance) is significant when marketing to multiethnic target markets within the same country.

* * *

The goal of the analysis in this article is to recognize that the cultural context of consumers should not be overlooked and to recommend cultural qualification as an online marketing strategy designed to ensure that the most-qualified consumers are connected with the most-relevant promotional content.


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Ricks, David A. (2000) Blunders in International Business. NY, Blackwell Publishing.

Singh, Nitish and Arun Periera (2005) The Culturally Customized Website: Customizing Websites for the Global Marketplace. Burlington, MA, Elsevier.

Singh, N. Furrer, O. and Massimilaino O. (2004) To Localize or to Standardize on the Web: Empirical Evidence from Italy, India, Netherlands, Switzerland, and Spain. Multinational Business Review, 12(1), 69-88.

Smith, Andy, Lynne Dunckley, Tim French, Shailey Minocha and Yu Chang (2004) A Process Model for Developing Usable Cross-Cultural Websites. Interacting with Computers, 16(1), 63-91.

Sudhir H. Kale, Sangita De, and Nicholas Kreider. (2007) Cultural Adaptation on the Web: Review and Implications. Globalisation and Development Centre.

Time Magazine (Oct. 26, 1970) Auto: American's Moment of Truth.,9171,904440,00.html

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David S.B. Butler, a PhD in applied anthropology, is a full-time professor in the Internet Marketing program at Full Sail University. He also works as an Internet marketing consultant specializing in cultural marketing, consumer behavior analysis, and target market analysis. Dr. Butler is part owner of League Development Inc., an online marketing consulting company.