When Marketing Through Social Media Culture Can Become a Challenge

Written by Johanna Persson


The last years’ changes in Internet use have changed fundamentally and social media is one reason for this change (Hanna, R., Rohm, A. and Crittenden, V.L, 2011, Wind, Y (J), 2008, Winer, R.S, 2009). Through social media consumers can easily interact with each other and exchange for instance experiences, rate products, comment books and movies (Scott, D.M., 2011). This means that social media has resulted in the empowering of the customer which has led to marketers being forced to find new ways to build efficient marketing strategies  (Deighton and Kornfeld, 2009, Hanna, R. et al, 2011, Varadarajan, R., and Yadav, M.S., 2009). In another word, marketing through social media have opportunities as well as challenges since the foundation which marketers work within to develop their strategies is not yet founded (Hoffma, D. L. and Novak, T. P., 2012). Still without this set foundation there are cases which have been successful when using social media, an example of this is Unilever’s Dove campaign for Real Beauty. This campaign used social media to communicate their message and at the same time involving their customers in the campaign (Winer, 2009 and Deighton and Kornfeld, 2009). However when the same campaign was imported by Dove China the response from the Chinese consumers were not the same as Unilever expected (Chiu, C., Ip, C. and Silverman, A. 2012). The fact that there seems to be cultural differences in the use of social media led to this articles question:

How can culture become a challenge for marketers when using social media as a marketing tool?

The purpose of this article is to argument for when inclusion social media in marketing strategy it is important to be aware of cultural differences. First the article will briefly examine where social media as a marketing tool stand today. Then to strengthen my argument about cultural differences in social media use, I have used China as an example. The choice of China was solely based on the fact that China is the country that has most Internet users in the world (Chiu et al, 2012). I will concisely review cross-cultural researches of China and its use of Internet and social media as well as one case. Thirdly the article will end in a general discussion with conclusion where I will answer my question.   

Theoretical part

Social media – a marketing tool with no foundation

Social media have offered a powerful way to explore consumers’ preferences and opinions about products and brands as well as being used to communicate with consumers directly (Barwise, P. and Meehan, S., 2010). It has also led to the empowering of the customer (Deighton, J., and Kornfeld, L. ,2009). Barwise and Meehan (2010) suggests in their article that with empowered consumers, it is essential for marketers to understand how to use social media. This has in turn resulted in social media becoming an important marketing tool. For instance, as Armelini and Villanueva (2011) declare in their article, Facebook’s “likes” have outran the Gross Rating Points (GRPs) to measure advertising impact. They also state that the rise of social media networks made it possible for word of mouth (WOM) to reach beyond one-to-one communication. However with social media as a marketing tool the traditional marketing tools have been outclassed by the new ones and this has resulted in marketers struggle with directions for how to use social media (Deighton and Kornfeld, 2009).

The need for finding a foundation to work within when using social media as marketing tool seem to be important for marketers today (Hoffman and Novak, 2012). Wind, J. (2008) points out that due to the essential changes in the world of marketing, today’s challenge is to develop new tools for marketing to tackle what the future will bring. Similar to what Wind (2008) states can also be found in Varadarajan, R., and Yadav, M.S. (2009) work where they suggests that there is a lack in research about how to work within the Web 2.0. They therefore conclude that Internet led to a new marketing platform and now the challenge is how to work within this platform as well as how to tackle the future. Furthermore Deighton and Kornfeld (2009) postulate that social media’s impact on marketing was not foreseen and hence the question of the use of social media in marketing have arisen. The lack of research within this field has led to that some brands have learned the hard way to use social media when marketing (Armelini and Villanueva, 2011). An example of this is Pepsi who learned from their Super Bowl campaign that social media should be used to enhance traditional advertising (Armelini and Villanueva, 2011).

Social media in China

Accordingly to Chiu, C., Ip, C. and Silverman, A. (2012) they state in McKinsey Quarterly that China should be seen as the world’s largest social media market. Compared to USA, China has more than twice as many Internet users and considered to be the world’s most vigorous environment for social media. As can be read in the article by Zhung, Z-J (2010) she mentions that in 2009 over 53.5 per cent of Chinese Internet users were active on social media networks and 36 per cent were planning to start using. In the article by Chiu et al (2012) it was calculated that in average Chinese Internet users spend over 40 per cent of their time on social media. However the Chinese social media market offers not only opportunities there are also challenges for example that frequent user on the social media people will expect responses to all posts, there is a lack of satisfying analytical tools for social media as well as the transparency of platforms are limited (Chiu et al, 2012). Similar to this was also stated by Zhung (2010) who highlights challenges like finding stable models for securing brands profit and for investors when using social media as well as understanding local market to be able to compete with international social media networks like Facebook.

Cultural differences in social media researches
Vuylsteke, A., Wen, Z., Baesens, B. and Poelmans, J. (2010) have in their research tried to identify differences in Internet use in Western Europe compared to China. The results of their study showed that there were differences between how Western Europe used Internet compared to China. For example the Chinese tend to use search engines differently, processing information differently as well as they show a higher degree of relaying on others when they read opinions on the Internet. However Chinese pointed out, explicitly, that there is a different between relaying on a friends opinion compared to opinions from a stranger. Further Vuylsteke et al (2010) concludes that the main reason for the differences between Western Europe and China springs from differences in culture. Another cross-cultural research is Chu, S-C. and Choi, S.M. (2011) who compared USA and China in the use of WOM in social networking sites. Their findings corresponded with Vuylsteke et al’s (2010) findings that Chinese tend to make a distinction between friends and non-friends on the Internet. Furthermore Chu and Choi (2011) summaries their finding by stating that overall Chinese are more active in WOM on social networking sites than Americans.

Individualism and collectivism
In the theoretical framework presented in Vuylsteke et al (2010) theories about collectivism versus individualism is highlighted as one possible motive for differences between China and Western Europe. Chu and Choi (2011) presents similar theoretical framework about collectivistic thinking in China can have an impact on the results compared to an individualistic thinking country like USA. These theories about culture and its impact on business it not a new phenomenon, Hofstede, G. published in 1983 a research study that indicated that the culture of individualism and collectivism will have consequences for organisations, especially for managers. To exemplify his theory Hofstede uses Japanese organisations that used so called western managing models but failed to get good results. The reason for this was most certainly due to the cultural differences in individualistic and collectivistic thinking (Hofstede, 1983).

Case - Dove China
Unilever’s famous campaign for Dove promoting Real Beauty for women of all body types and looks was very successful and is a good example of how marketing through social media can work well (Winer, 2009 and Deighton and Kornfeld, 2009). Dove China imported this successful social media campaign to promote beauty for women but failed. It turned out that the Chinese consumers viewed these real women as unattractive and overweight. The mistake forced Dove China to change strategy and therefore signed a partnership with Ugly Wudi, China’s version of the American television show Ugly Betty. The partnership with Ugly Wudi included online chats and blogging by Wudi which made it possible for Dove China to still communicate the message of Real Beauty. After one season of Ugly Wudi, Dove China had increased 21 per cent in sales and estimated that their ROI from the campaign was four times larger than when using traditional marketing channels. (Chiu et al, 2012)

General discussion and conclusion

Social media led to fundamental changes and there is no doubt that social media should be considered as a powerful marketing tool. As been stated above, there is a lack in research about how to maneuverer within the web 2.0. which has led to marketers being forced to learn the hard way. Therefore it can be concluded that the search for a satisfying foundation for tackling the existing marketing platform and the future can be seen as essential for marketers.

The differences between eastern cultures and western cultures are not new. Like mentioned above, Hofstede’s (1983) work concluded that one way to address culture differences for managers are to understand the differences between collectivistic and individualistic thinking. The difference in individualistic and cultural thinking was assumed to be one of the reasons for observed cultural differences in the two studies presented in this article. I believe this type of information is highly relevant when companies develop marketing strategies not at least when they export marketing campaigns to different countries.

The Dove China example, used in this article, not only exemplifies that cultural differences should be taken serious but is also highlights what Zhung (2010) mentions in her article, local knowledge is important to be able to tackle social media in China. Further the reason for Dove China’s unsuccessfully social media campaign could be explained by cultural differences which were neglected but also the fact that, again, there is no satisfying foundation for how to use social media successfully in marketing.

In this article the case with Dove China was used to exemplify the need of being aware of culture and if not, it can have devastating consequences. Further it has been argued that social media can be used as a marketing tool but the strategic use of it is still not totally identified. Based on this I will answering my question, how can culture become a challenge for marketers when using social media as a marketing tool?, by concluding that adding culture to social media marketing it will implicate difficulty when marketers will try to tackle the existing market platform. Therefore culture can be seen as a challenge when using social media as a marketing tool. However the reason for this is not certain since there is no satisfying strategy for marketers when it comes to social media. In another word marketing through social media is in itself a challenges with our without cultural differences. Hence I suggest that when marketer are using social media as a marketing tool they should include marketer with local knowledge so that the eventually challenge with cultural differences can be minimized.



Reference list 

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