Cross-Cultural Differences in Brand Cognitive Structures

Sharon Ng, Nanyang Technological University
Michael Houston, University of Minnesota
EXTENDED ABSTRACT - Understanding brand cognitive structures has been an important area of research in marketing. The way people organize information in their minds affects the retrieval, usage, and encoding of brand information (Wyer and Srull 1989; Cowley and Mitchell 2003). However, despite extensive research in this area, to date, few researchers have examined whether the way consumers structure brand information differs across culture. As world economies become increasingly connected, a better understanding of brand cognitive structures across cultures is essential to helping companies make better branding decisions in both domestic and foreign markets. Thus, this paper aimed to fill this gap in the literature by examining the impact of culture on brand cognitive structures.
[ to cite ]:
Sharon Ng and Michael Houston (2005) ,"Cross-Cultural Differences in Brand Cognitive Structures", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 32, eds. Geeta Menon and Akshay R. Rao, Duluth, MN : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 294-294.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 32, 2005     Page 294-

CROSS-CULTURAL DIFFERENCES IN BRAND COGNITIVE STRUCTURES

Sharon Ng, Nanyang Technological University

Michael Houston, University of Minnesota

EXTENDED ABSTRACT -

Understanding brand cognitive structures has been an important area of research in marketing. The way people organize information in their minds affects the retrieval, usage, and encoding of brand information (Wyer and Srull 1989; Cowley and Mitchell 2003). However, despite extensive research in this area, to date, few researchers have examined whether the way consumers structure brand information differs across culture. As world economies become increasingly connected, a better understanding of brand cognitive structures across cultures is essential to helping companies make better branding decisions in both domestic and foreign markets. Thus, this paper aimed to fill this gap in the literature by examining the impact of culture on brand cognitive structures.

Recent findings in the cross-cultural literature have provided compelling evidence that people in different cultures do not process information similarly (Nisbett et al. 2001). Specifically, scholars found that Easterners are more field dependent. They pay great attention to the context, and focus on the relationship between objects and the field. On the other hand, Westerners are more field independent. They focus on the attributes of objects, and pay minimal attention to the context (Nisbett et al. 2001). The research question we are interested in is: does a differential level of field dependency across cultures lead people to structure brand information differently in memory? In this paper, we proposed that it does. Specifically, we proposed that a differential level of field dependency influences the extent to which one generalizes beliefs about a product to other products by the same brand (i.e., the extent to which one possesses a global belief that is ascribed to other products by the same brand).

Previous research found that Westerners pay minimal attention to contextual information and tend to categorize objects taxonomically (Nisbett et al. 2001). They have a more context independent conceptualization of categories and concepts are abstracted out of situations. This way of conceptualizing categories should filter down to the way Westerners perceive brands. In the brand context, these findings suggest that Westerners would be chronically inclined to abstract information from product experiences, and generalize this information to other taxonomically related products by the same brand. Thus, for each brand, Westerners would ascribe the same sets of beliefs to products that are taxonomically related. On the other hand, since Easterners pay greater attention to contextual information, they possess a more situated view of concepts. They tend to focus on the contextual information surrounding the use of each brand or product. This suggests that Easterners would be more likely to generalize information across products (by the same brand) used in the same usage occasion. This is consistent with the previous finding that Easterners are chronically more likely to group relationally related products together.

To test the above hypotheses, we adapted from the property verification task. Specifically, we examined the scope of facilitation in reaction time for a target product, after subjects were asked to respond to related context products (Solomon and Barsalou 2001). According to the associative network theory, if two products are attached to the same belief node, activating the belief of one product should raise the activation level of related nodes (i.e., the other product). For example, presenting the target word "Sony TV-good quality" should spread the activation to other related words. If Sony Walkman is connected to the same belief node (e.g., "good quality"), its activation level would rise above the baseline level, and approach threshold. Thus, when Sony Walkman is encountered later, it takes less activation to cross its threshold.

Two studies were conducted. Study 1 aimed to test if the way Westerners and Easterners store information of taxonomically related products differs. Towards this end, Study 1 employed a 2 (Country: Americans vs. Chinese) X 2 (Context product: Taxonomically Similar Product condition and Control condition) between subjects design. In this study, country status was used as a proxy for culture as previous research has shown that Americans are more field independent while Chinese are more field dependent.

Results from Study 1 supported our hypothesis. We found that Westerners reacted much faster to the target products, when they were shown context products that were taxonomically similar to the target product (p<.05). However, responding to taxonomically similar context products did not significantly facilitate Easterners’ reactions to the target products (p>.1). Thus, the results supported our argument that relative to Easterners, Westerners are more likely to connect the same sets of beliefs to taxonomically similar products.

Although results of Study 1 supported our hypotheses, it has two major limitations. One, since country was used as a proxy for culture, study 1 was unable to make a definitive statement on the underlying dimension of culture that led to the cultural differences. Two, there were potentially more noise, and non-equivalence of brands across samples in a cross-country design. To address these limitations, Study 2 adopted a single country design and assessed individuals’ field dependency directly. Study two also aimed to test whether Westerners and Easterners store information on relationally similar products differently.

To this end, Study 2 employed a 2 (Field Dependency: Field Dependent vs. Field Independent) X 3 (Similarity: Taxonomically similar product, Relationally similar product, and control) between subjects design. Results for the taxonomically similar product condition replicated the findings observed in Study 1. Specifically, we found that field independents exhibited significantly greater degree of facilitation than field dependents (p<.05). In addition, we also found support for our argument that unlike field independents, field dependents are more likely to connect the same sets of beliefs to relationally similar products (p<.05).

Thus, results from both studies provided converging evidence for our proposition that there are cross-cultural differences in consumers’ brand cognitive structures.

REFERENCES

Cowley, Elizabeth and Andrew A. Mitchell (2003), "The Moderating Effect of Product Knowledge on the Learning and Organization of Product Information," Journal of Consumer Research, 30 (December), 443-454

Nisbett, Richard E., K. Peng, I. Choi and A. Norenzayan (2001), "Culture and Systems of Thought: Holistic vs. Analytical Cognition," Psychological Review, 108 (2), 291-310

Solomon, Karen O. and Lawrence W. Barsalou (2001), "Representing Properties Locally," Cognitive Psychology, 43 (2), 129-169

Wyer, Robert S. and Thomas K. Srull (1989), Memory and Cognition in its Social Context, Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum

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