Lessons in Cultural Adaptability: Varying Attitudes in Eastern and Western Cultures on Project Decisions and Direction

There’s a recent article featured on HBR that examines how people’s attitudes in the workplace depend on their relationship toward authority, which is largely driven by the culture they grew up in. Take for example, the difference between Western and Eastern cultures.

In the West, we are asked to be more proactive and a strategic leader is seen as more valuable than a tactician. In Asia, employees expect to learn their tasks play-by-play from their bosses. When American managers are assigned to Asia, or Asian managers are asked to work with American employees, disagreements ensue.

I see this first hand in my experience working with Asian colleagues from the Philippines. Part of my job is to provide marketing guidance to our team in Asia in a consultative environment. The recurring question is: How do we transform our marketing in the digital world? During our weekly meetings, those in the Philippines ask for rules and guidelines that they can follow step-by-step.

They ask about which specific media channel they should invest in: should we put all our media budget on Facebook?

They come to us looking for what amounts to laws of the land, or hard-and-fast rules that are rigid but comforting to them as they are well-defined. Is Facebook the one channel that will give us the best results?

My American colleague and I hesitate to provide them with a singular way to achieve a certain goal, because we wanted to encourage autonomy and creativity. In this case, they are a variety of media channels that they can look into investing in, not just Facebook. So we tell them over and over again that it would serve them well to look at the data, understand consumer behavior, and research media channels that are both successful and innovative in the market to make the right decision on their investments.

Yet, at the end of these meetings, our Filipino counterparts feel they are not given enough guidance because they are not given specific answers nor been told to go a specific direction. Whereas us here in the States feel that by looking for “rules” and “step-by-step” lists, they may be thinking in a rather short-sighted way, reluctant to open themselves up to new ways of doing things (ie. data-based decision making and experimenting with other digital channels).

In these interactions, I’m learning that Eastern culture emphasizes the importance of doing well what one is told to do, while Western culture emphasizes generating new ideas and collaborating on solutions.

Now, I’m trying to balance the cultural expectation of providing specific directions while also introducing a cultural change to think more freely, independently and rely on hard evidence such as data. I’ll suggest a specific scenario to answer their questions, then walk them through the process of why it would work, while reminding them that it’s not the only answer to their challenges.

Understanding cultural contexts allows us to make changes to our actions and communication in order to relate better to our peers.

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Are you a myopic or strategic shopper?

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I recently signed a lease for an apartment close to work and the beach. These days, it’s hard to score a decent place in LA that’s not crumbling or overpriced. I’m glad I finally found a good spot!

Consequently, I’m deep into furniture shopping. Or window shopping, might be a better way to put it. I’m looking through gems on Craigslist, “good” to “like new” condition of high-quality furniture like CB2 and West Elm. I’m also looking at the furniture section of Macy’s and Home Goods. Even Gilt.com, to add more options to the mix.

In between working during daytime, furniture shopping during afternoon breaks and dreaming about stylish, comfortable furniture at night, I also keep myself busy with readings from books and magazines. (I can’t wait to build my library again with all the books I want to read and own, but that’s for another post).

While reading HBR, I came across this article that talks about how consumers tend to buy more when there’s a mystery or uncertainty involved in their selection set. This phenomenon is called the “sushi conveyor belt consumer behavior,” because like a hungry fiend infront of rotating sushi (or dimsum), consumers tend to pick what’s infront of them right away, and again when they see something they like. Compared to looking at an entire menu and selecting one dish, consumers who don’t know what’s on offer tend to buy more or make multiple purchases.

That is interesting, but what’s more interesting to me is how they categorized shoppers. They introduced the idea of “myopic shoppers,” who are impulsive and tend to buy right away, and “strategic shoppers,” who like to research before making a purchase. The difference between them is the ability (or inability, in the case of the former) to delay gratification.

When people think about consumer behavior, most of the time they think consumers are always myopic. They buy things right away when there’s a promotion, or discount, or during a flash sale. And while it’s true that these “incentives” or “sweeteners” can encourage a purchase, there are consumers who enjoy the time spent researching a purchase, especially if it’s a big one.

I could be considered both a myopic and  strategic shopper, depending on the situation. When I was younger, I was more myopic because when I see something I really like and I can afford, I like to own it. But as I matured, and had been influenced by the 2009 recession, I understand the value of not spending too much or all at once. I realize there’s a certain joy in pacing oneself when making a purchase– the more you add time to a decision, the more you can sleep on it to test how much you like something, as well as open a plethora of options that was not obvious before, or learn about the history, or art or subculture of a product, as you do more research.

 

Read more about the working paper of the HBR writers here:

http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/assortment-rotation-and-the-value-of-concealment

Consumer Funnel 101

For someone who didn’t major in marketing (UCLA didn’t have this major), I had to learn marketing on the go.

I started my career not knowing anythinf about the 4Ps, the numerous marketing theories, the rise of technology, the disruption of the media landscape, how the advertising business worked. I had to read, talk to people, ask professionals, and formalize my training with a master’s program in marketing in order to feel comfortable about the industry.

And I thought every marketer all around the world operated under the same principles I learned in the States. Theories have this way of making you feel as if they are unyielding and universal.

Little did I know that marketing strategies and practices differed entirely across regions, cities, countries. Wherever there is even just a slight variance in culture, the way consumers behaved differed and how we should talk to them as marketers should be different as well.

The strategies that we create as marketers are dependent on consumer psychology. People need to be aware of a product before they could think about buying it, then people need to feel that they need buy something, interact with it, read up on it, then eventually buy it.

If you break it down to the basics, it looks like this:

Awareness —> Engagement (Consideration) —> Conversion (Purchase)

We call this the consumer funnel. Since marketers deal with humans and all humans are physically created the same way (and generally behave the same way in a fundamental sense, ie. eat/drink/sleep/walk/talk), and because marketing theory is founded on this principle, I thought I’ve found something that is common to my peers in this profession.

When you work in a different market, in my case, Asia, for example, in order to talk to peers and start to actually do something, you need to agree on a few basic things. A common ground. Some baseline knowledge. Or else every idea or suggestion will be questioned, interrogated, investigated, and conversation will not move forward. Ever heard of the phrase, “for the sake of argument” when two people are discussing a topic? Implied in that statement is for the parties in a debate to suspend any argument, believe in what the other party is arguing even for a second, and let communication progress.

But lo and behold, when I was working in the Philippines with a client in the quick-service, this consumer funnel– the very foundational marketing principle if there ever was one– was largely unknown. Non-existent. No one’s heard of it. No media strategy was based on this because it wasn’t “a thing.”

I was shocked. Speechless. As I talked about it, I felt like everyone agreed on the same thing and I was the crazy one in the room. But in fact, I know that 8,000 miles away, my folks in the US will know exactly what I’m talking about!

In advertising, the way we plan marketing campaigns is set objectives that align with a stage in the consumer funnel.

For example, if it’s a new product, we plan messaging that introduces the product, and try to reach as many people as possible that is part of our target audience. If it’s a product that is part of a competitive category, we plan messaging that will pique interest and attention so that our brand stays on top of the consideration set. If it’s a product that people are about to buy but haven’t purchased it just yet, then we plan messaging that contains an incentive (ie. coupon or discount) to encourage consumers to finally make the purchase.

This is such a new concept in other markets, but the good thing about it is, there’s an opportunity for marketers like me and you to train and educate them. I do exactly that in my current project– which also helps me re-educate myself and reinforce some of the basic concepts that advanced marketers may take for granted or have forgotten.

Lessons learned in 2016

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I reflected on some a good things that happened this year. I was given big projects in strategic consulting, my career traveling between Southeast Asia and California blossomed, I expanded my network and made some very good friends. At the same time, I kept in close touch with my family and friends in Los Angeles whenever I was back in town. It was very busy. I worked most of the time. In my free time, I went to different rural and beach areas in the Philippines. I visited Eastern Europe with a dear friend from college. I hit a milestone age. I stretched myself. I achieved most of the goals I set out for the year. I failed in some areas. I let go of some control and let adventure dictate how I lived the year. I balanced purely logical thinking by complementing it with emotions and intuition. It was a good year.

What better way to start the year than a quick review of the year that was and let them guide us into the new year?

Here are the 5 biggest lessons I learned last year:

  • Honor your unique experience. I’m a cultural hybrid of sorts. In the States, people wonder where I’m from. When I was living in Chicago, it was well known that I’m not a local and I had come from somewhere else. Then I went to Asia, and having grown up there,  I thought I’d fit right in. Yet I realized I’m more American than I am Asian. At the airport, people don’t know what to make of me- I behave like an American, look Asian, speak Spanish, culturally versed like a European. It’s not always easy for others to place me in any one category, and sometimes I have to explain what I’m all about, but I’ve grown out of wishing that I had grown up in one place my whole life with the same set of friends since kindergarten–  I am fully owning the varied experiences life has brought me: the good, the bad, the ugly, the upsetting, the nerve-wracking, the marvelous.
  • Kindness goes a long way. In my adult life, I had developed a notion that kindness equated to weakness. In cutthroat environments like at university or the corporate world, people seem to operate in a Machiavellian way. Then I encountered people who paid minimal attention to status, money, power; people who recognize the importance of these in society, yet are not losing their minds driving toward their pursuit. Yet they confident, successful, possess a strong sense of self outside of what they do or what they have, and most of all, kind to others. They care about the well-being of others as if their own, and you feel how genuine they are. So I thought, these are the people I want to be like. That realization made me change some of my role models and gave me clarity in how I want to continue my career, and ultimately, how I want to live my life.
  • There’s no need to rush to get everything done now. Dedicating time on a few projects and being oriented toward goals (and their completion!) are more important. Tomorrow will take care of itself. The only commitment is give your best and take steps forward at every moment along the way. There will always be opportunities. Sometimes they come to you as if sent by the universe. Other times, you have to open doors and create opportunities on your own.
  • Expat life is rewarding, but it’s more challenging than I thought. Two things need to be managed. One is their actual employment through the company they are working for, and the other is their actual lives. Making time for personal pursuits is already a full-time job; add a new environment in which to find old hobbies and new interests is double the effort.
  • There’s no place like home. I’ve seen many places in my life. 30 countries and countless cities. I’m fortunate to get the chance to travel to so many amazing countries to see beautiful sights, historical buildings, artful living, breathtaking sceneries, warm and happy people, cultural vestiges. Yet at the end of the day, some of my happiest places is driving unhurried on the 405 on a sunny day. Running errands in the South Bay. Walking along the strand and taking in ocean breeze. Brunch in Redondo Beach. I’ve always had this sense of curiosity and wanderlust and designed my 20s to fulfill and nurture it. After having traveled so much, nothing compares to the wide expanse of clear blue skies, sunshine, ocean waves, and the sense that adventure, optimism and opportunity awaits. I find it wildly ironic that I had to leave home only to realize that there’s no other place I can see myself settling for good other than Southern California.

New Year, New Goals

Happy New Year everyone!

After years of intermittent blogging, my goal is to revive this blog and update it regularly. I was encouraged by mentors, peers and friends to keep writing, so I’m taking the first step towards it through this blog. I miss sharing my experiences here– about marketing, lessons learned, travel, and random musings I come across.

I’ll clean up a few things here, focus the topics a bit more then plan for regular updates. Stay tuned 🙂