What does a Super App have to do with culture?

I recently came across a New York Times short film on China’s WeChat – what they call, “for lack of the better word, a super app, a Swiss Army Knife that does everything for you. It’s your WhatsApp, Facebook, Skype, Uber, Amazon…and other things that we don’t even have an app for, such as hospital booking systems, investment services, heat maps to show how crowded a place is. The list of services goes on basically forever, but it’s not the variety of things you can do on WeChat that makes it so powerful, it’s the fact that they are all in one app.”

I was particularly interested in two features of this app: 1) how you can do everything without leaving the app, and 2) how its privacy social group visibility is designed philosophically different from most of the other “western” social apps such as Facebook. And I realized both these features of WeChat are perfect manifestations of the interdependence culture of China (broadly speaking, despite obvious diversity existing in that culture).

Our data show that generally people from the East tend to be more interdependent, while those from the West tend to be more independent. Independence culture societies consider the individual a separate self-contained entity encouraged to be unique and strive for personal goals. In interdependence culture conversely, the individual adjusts him/herself to fit in, and maintaining group harmony is of higher priority.

WeChat is a cool example to illustrate this major cultural difference.

  1. Interdependence cultures prefer “combined” product offerings

Academic research has long established the relationship between interdependence construal and preferences (although often unconscious) towards “combined” product offerings, such as in this case, a super app (WeChat Official Partners Ecosystem, source: China Channel). People from interdependence cultures (East Asians and Latin Americans generally speaking) tend to feel more comfortable with “combined” offers. While some may rationalize in terms of convenience or better value, such preferences are owed to a mental wiring that often cannot be articulated. There are plenty of other examples for such preferences, like the prevalence of multi-camera (long before iPhone 7) and multi-SIM card (one phone that can use multiple phone numbers) mobile phones in China, enthusiasm for collectibles, commonness of product combos as a point of purchase strategy, etc.

  1. Interdependence means greater prejudice against the outgroups

Another intriguing aspect of WeChat is its privacy rules. Let’s say you are friends with A and B on Facebook and on WeChat. A and B don’t know each other. A is friends with A1 and A2. You are also friends with A1.

Your friend A posts something on Facebook. You liked it and commented on it. You will see likes and comments from her other friends, including those you know such as A1, and those you don’t know such as A2. And your “like” and comment will be seen by all her friends, and anyone who sees A’s post. Your friend B may see that you liked “A”’s post and all the likes and comments A receives on this post, although B doesn’t know A.

On WeChat, on the other hand, your friend A posts something. You liked it and commented on it. You will see likes and comments from only your mutual friends, in this case, A1. A2 also liked her post but you won’t see A2’s “like” because you and A2 are not friends, and your “like” won’t be seen by A2 for the same reason. Similarly, your friend B won’t know that you liked A’s post.

Why would WeChat design such a complicated rule? China’s interdependence culture explains (other than safety concern a that many Chinse have). Although interdependence appears to mean that people are collectivistic, the communitarianism extends to groups as part of the self and is also associated with greater prejudice toward outgroups. Visibility among mutual friends is WeChat’s secret sauce of its enormous stickiness (also an effective way of protecting privacy).

Why do we need to understand independence vs. interdependence?

Independence vs. interdependence is one of the most fundamental cultural dimensions that has implications on various business processes. A good understanding of this cultural dimension and its implications will help you become a more effective employee or manager in the increasingly globalized workplace, and help you become a smarter marketer to win the hearts and minds of consumers through implicit alignment with their cultural imprints.

Workplace

Sabina Michael, a Curriculum Designer and Career Coach who runs the best bridging program for internationally educated professionals, Business Edge at Rotman School of Management, calls attention to differences in how people start conversations for the first time and the importance of “group affiliations” to interdependence cultures:

“It brings to mind the way my mother back in India greets someone she has met for the first time. Within five minutes of the start of the conversation she asks veetu perru entha (വീട്ടുപേർ എന്താ?) or ‘what is your family name?’ And once she knows the family name she is able to identify who their grandparents, uncles and aunts are and how she is connected to them. I have seen the joy on her face when she is able to establish a connection, however distant it may be, as establishing relationships and understanding how the individual is connected to the larger group is of prime importance. Now if I were to try doing that in an Independent culture like Canada, I don’t see it going down very well.”

Interdependence means people tend to be more cooperative than competitive within a group they identify themselves with. Sabina continued to share her insights on people management through cultural understandings:

“In the workplace, someone who values interdependence may be willing to stay up late and help a colleague finish an urgent task, and then feel confused or even hurt when their ‘independent’ colleague does not make a similar offer in return. Teamwork translates differently across cultures too: in interdependence cultures, it would be quite natural for an individual to take on another colleague’s task or make major changes on a colleague’s document without seeking permission or being asked to provide feedback as it is within the realm of their responsibility to their team. To those who value independence, this kind of support shown by an interdependent colleague could be seen as borderline invasive.”

How to optimize productivity and creativity in teams of different cultural orientations is a constant challenge/opportunity faced by many companies and organizations. Awareness of cultural differences is the first step.

Marketing

Cultural understanding helps discover unstated consumer preferences. Cultural knowledge is meaningful, effective and essential to access intrinsic biases consumers employ when consuming products/services and marketing communications, especially in cross-cultural marketing. I mentioned a few examples of how interdependence orientation is manifested in consumer preferences and WeChat is a great success story when it’s product design is implicitly aligned with such preferences. Conversely, when not aligned, marketing efforts simply won’t engage or even receive undesired reactions.

One of my growing interests is in the rise of global brands from emerging markets. In the last two decades, the world has witnessed a remarkable shift in its economic center of gravity. Many formerly underdeveloped countries from Asia, Latin America and Africa, are now at the centre stage of globalization in their quest for growth. Previously cultural insights fueled the growth of multinationals, mostly from the West, in their global expansions from developed economies to developing markets. Today, cultural insights and sensitivities are even more critical for this shifting wave of globalization from emerging economies to developed markets.

I’d like to end today’s post with a case study from Huawei, which has become more of a household name in many markets outside of China. Huawei launched its commercial “Dream it Possible” produced by Hollywood’s Wondros Productions, song by Delacey, in September 2016.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5AvVBBBwt-0

Quoting an article from MetaThink, a leading branding and strategy consultancy based in Shanghai,

“As a high-end Chinese brand, Huawei has had successful global expansions and is gradually changing the general perception of ‘Made in China’. Its recently released mini film commercial, however, has received controversial reviews. Some industry experts shared sentiments that the commercial was not able to break away from the stereotypical ‘made in China’ story.”

What is a “made in China” story? I think that refers to stories that clearly communicate Chinese values. In this case, multi-generational family love and support and achievement through hard work, just to name a few.

And what is the problem of not being able to break away from such a “made in China” story? Amanda Chen, Senior Analyst at Rogers Brand & Product Insights, said it well.

“There are three core messages touched upon in this ad: family value, the virtue of hard work, and success. Too much mixing of the three here makes it extremely Chinese to me. Although evoking a strong emotional connection largely due to sheer familiarity, the ad was a turn-off for me with its emphasis on how success only becomes a success when being recognized by the family (i.e. grandfather). Also, when a heuristic is completely exposed and even exploited – it backfires at least for me.”

We then did an experiment. We showed this Huawei ad to many people from various cultural backgrounds; it spawned a range of reactions. Generally, those from interdependent cultures (from the East) reacted more positively whereas those from independent cultures (from the West) reacted more negatively.

To illustrate some contrasting reactions to the Huawei ad is a table below:

 

 

Our conclusion? If this Huawei ad was intended for a Western audience, there is indeed a great need for breaking away from a “made in China” story. A story aligned with their independence culture would likely engage easily and yield better results.

What’s next? 

As businesses become more global and workforces more diverse, cultural understanding is bound to become increasingly important. We hope to promote awareness of cultural differences through our proprietary cultural research and bring data to life through perspectives and stories from peers and industry leaders.

I have talked about two important cultural dimensions so far, internal vs. external control and independence and interdependence. I plan to talk about other cultural dimensions, including hierarchy/power distance, task vs. relationship, etc. in the near future.

Understanding cultural differences, which are often times subconscious, requires innovative research designs and tools. I would also like to dedicate one of my future blogs on methodology – how we incorporated behavioural science and game theories to build our cultural study and what we have learned from this experience.

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