four pillars of culture

A roadmap to cross-market relevance and effectiveness: the four pillars of culture

14th Feb 2023

A roadmap to cross-market relevance and effectiveness: the four pillars of culture

Culture is everywhere and ever evolving. No longer bound to nationality or geographical location, it’s about ideas, customs and behaviours, and fundamentally connects everyone. In the last few years, audiences have become more diverse and fragmented, whilst remaining inter-connected.

Successful brands are those that have cultural eyes and ears, in the moment and on the ground, to help them navigate complex and diverse markets. Looking at segmentation through a cultural lens, a J-hop fan in Hokkaido can have more in common with a J-hop fan in LA than a neighbour from a similar demographic group.

Cracking the cultural code that’s within an audience is vital to identifying who they are, what drives them and how to create an emotional connection with a brand.

So what is culture all about? How is it constructed and how can it be decoded? Simply put, it can be broken down into four pillars of culture: norms, values, language and symbols. By gaining an understanding of these elements, you can gain valuable insight on how to effectively market to different cultures, subcultures and communities.

In this article, we break down the four pillars of culture to provide insight on how they can be applied to your brand values and marketing strategy and why it is so important to embed them as early as possible in the ideation process.

1 – Cultural norms, the rulebook

Cultural norms are the shared expectations, standards and rules that guide the behaviours of people within social groups. Cultural norms are learned from and reinforced by parents, friends and other personal connections throughout life.

When designing a global marketing strategy, it is important to keep in mind how cultural norms affect local consumer decisions and reactions in different ways. Visual elements as basic as showing the soles of one’s feet or which hand the wedding band is on can have a huge impact on how your campaign is perceived and performs.

At a strategic level, getting into people’s minds and knowing how to consolidate the diverging insights and data from different markets is critical to long lasting impact and global process optimisation – both a critical indicator of success for agencies and brands alike.

One brand that has integrated cultural norms to position itself in a new market is KFC. The American fast food chain successfully established itself in the Chinese market by adapting to local tastes and cultural norms. One key aspect of this adaptation was the use of red and yellow in its branding, which are considered auspicious colours in Chinese culture

Additionally, KFC incorporated Chinese cultural elements into its marketing campaigns, like the use of traditional red lanterns and cultural phrases during the Chinese New Year. KFC also tailored its menu offerings to suit local tastes, with items such as congee (a type of rice porridge) and spicy chicken being popular in China.

Later down the line, they took  cultural and brand alignment to the next level when they capitalised on a specific cultural movement around their brand. For years, Chinese customers would informally refer to KFC as “Kaifengcai” (which stands for Kaifeng cuisine) so KFC decided to recognise that and to create a new Kaifengcai range of ready-to-cook meals, which has in turn increased brand appreciation in the market.

By embracing and incorporating elements of Chinese culture, KFC has been able to establish a strong brand identity and presence in the market.

2 – Cultural values, the shared mantra

Cultural values are the core principles that an entire community or society are based around. The concepts embodied in a culture’s values include their traditions, rituals, and beliefs. 

Cultural values exist in all forms of culture: at a national, corporate, subculture and community level. By leveraging a shared mantra, brands can capitalise on their relevance in an ever-evolving context by building upon solid common foundations.

Many brands have found ways to define themselves through and engage with a variety of cultures and subcultures by implementing a localised personal approach rather than a one-size-fits all global strategy. Let’s take the example of Brazilian popular culture. Given the history and sheer size of the country, we are looking at colourful and diverse dimensions including strong differences among the regions.

Devassa, a local beer brand capitalised on that understanding of the local landscape and designed a new brand identity and campaign in 2019 called Tropical transformed focusing exclusively on urban expressions in the Northeast region of Brazil.

Another successful Brazilian beer brand, Brahma, has anchored its brand and identity into the Sertanejo musical style, which is typical of the southeast and central-west region. This (sub)cultural approach to brand building and understanding of what drives and inspires a community can be the building blocks to growing a brand in a new market.

3 – Language, the vehicle

Language is another key cultural pillar that is constantly evolving. With decades of technological advancements and digitisation, language has now taken on different forms.

Emojis have become a language of its own, within the digital cultural population. As a worldwide form of expression, it has developed immensely in the last decades embracing cultural differences. Culturally, in Korea people tend to read emotions through the eyes first, therefore, the emojis developed through eyes expression ^.^ to smile and ㅜ.ㅜ to express crying, while Western emojis have developed through the mouth with representations such as 😉 to wink or 🙁 as a sad reaction.

Korean emojis

Korean emoticons and their meanings


Just as a word in one language can mean something entirely different in another, there is a need for cultural sensitivity when marketing at a global level. Proofing cultural campaigns are key to avoiding cultural faux-pas – one that is often deprioritised but that can avoid brand reputation damage and lead to huge budget efficiencies.

Looking at the US market specifically, the terms Hispanic and Latino are sometimes used interchangeably, but they have very different meanings and connotations.

Hispanic refers to individuals who are Spanish-speaking or have a background in a Spanish-speaking country. Latino refers to those who are from or have a background in a Latin American country. More often than not, the Hispanic minority in the US would never refer to themselves as Hispanic but Latinos. This minor oversight in language can deeply offend whilst also affecting brand reputation and campaign efficiency.

4 – Cultural symbols, and unconscious interpretation

Symbols play a huge part within communication and language. Semiotic analysis is a great way of combine-testing the visual, cultural and language interpretation of creative assets and of avoiding costly miscommunications.

Processing visual language is an efficient way of communicating meaning. In a context where audiences can be desensitised to brand messaging, lost in a myriad of white noise, they tend to search for trusted and familiar symbols to help navigate through the confusion.

McDonald’s recent success with their ‘Raise Your Arches’ campaign in the UK, featuring no restaurants or burgers with only subtle pieces of branding is a real testament to this.

A campaign that not only anchors itself into cultural codes and symbols but that is also set to create a cultural movement. We will no doubt begin to see people raising eyebrows at each other to mean McDonald’s in the near future.

 The checklist to cross-cultural planning

So, with all these four cultural pillars in mind, how does one make sure this cultural framework doesn’t add layers of complexity in the ideation and creative process? How to make sure that the common denominator isn’t the lowest? How to develop a central strategy that still retains a local feel?

Involving the local stakeholders as early as possible in the process will be invaluable provided that you have the right guardrails into place: local strategy and cultural expert consultation will play as the reference point to any interactions with the local markets to avoid political conflicts, bias or even worse, the abortion of your initial concepts.

Simple steps such as top line insights, cultural audits and semiotic analyses can work wonders! In turn, when your creative work comes to local implementation, that early stage local due diligence will avoid multiple rounds of back and forth or reiterations.

After taking all of the above into consideration, it’s clear culture has many layers and unspoken rules. So it is vital for brands to understand these subtleties and nuances, if they are going to stand the test of time.

Whether it be within a marketing strategy, branding or a business transformation effort, gaining clarity on the four pillars of culture (norms, values, language and symbols) and what drives behaviours at the very start of the conceptualisation, strategy and ideation process will not only give you competitive advantage but also create huge efficiencies in the process.

If you’d like to learn more about cultural intelligence, the four pillars of culture and how culture can work for you visit our insights page.

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