This U of Michigan professor helps students of international marketing learn the nuances of culture by first helping them see how little they really know.
Clinical Assistant Professor of Business Administration, University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business
Doctorate and MA in Education, PhD in Marketing, MBA, Bachelor of Engineering Science (BESc)
Culture is one of those terms that we all know and use. But what does it really mean?
That is the first question that John Branch, PhD, MBA, sets out to help students answer in his class on international marketing.
“You could give someone 27 definitions of culture, but that does not really tell you that much,” says Branch. “It is not enough to know what culture is; you need to understand that there are different models and dimensions of culture.”
A more salient point, which he seeks to help students understand, is why culture is so important.
“The real question that we are trying to answer is, ‘Who cares?’ Why is this important to you, student/want-to-be-international-marketer? What are the implications of culture, and how do they play out in the day-to-day experience of the international marketer?”
Before he addresses any of these queries, however, Branch begins by administering an enlightening quiz: one that he expects students to fail miserably (but without negative repercussions).
Challenge: Complex concept, unfamiliar context
International marketing is challenging because of the cultural differences a company faces when it crosses national boundaries, and because of the risks of attempting to bridge those differences. Branch needed a way to highlight for students these challenges, which collectively can be called the cultural imperative.
Trying to reduce such a complex topic to a series of definitions was causing students’ eyes to glaze over. “I am a big believer in experiential learning,” says Branch. “I think students learn better when they are engaged, and I was looking for an exercise that would teach concepts around cultural competence experientially.”
Branch first experimented with a commonly used activity in which students are divided into two different simulated societies and asked to act out the sometimes-conflicting customs.
“It is supposed to show how we look at the world through a cultural lens. But the students thought it was a little bit goofy, and it did not work all that well. I became frustrated, and that got me thinking about alternatives,” says Branch.
He began to realize that one of his own competitive advantages came from having lived, worked, and traveled abroad extensively, including in some far-flung places. “I [knew that I] could leverage this experience to help my students understand the nuances of culture,” says Branch. “I could give my students a vicarious experience of cultural differences through the experience of John Branch.”
Innovation: Setting up students to fail (at first)
Branch knew that the majority of his students did not have the same comfort and familiarity with international cultures that he had developed. And, as business students, they did not necessarily have the background in anthropology and other disciplines that might provide them with an understanding of the factors that define a culture.
To help impart a greater sense of cultural competence to his students, Branch decided that the framework of his course would be a common model of cultural anthropology that is based on the 9 elements that define a culture: 1) communication systems, 2) metaphysical beliefs, 3) social systems, 4) economics, 5) education, 6) friendships, 7) technology and transformation, 8) government and politics, and 9) aesthetics.
“I thought that maybe I could create some sort of activity around the 9 elements, and out popped the idea of quiz,” Branch says.
Working from his own knowledge of cultures around the world, Branch developed an interactive exercise that uses an intentionally challenging quiz as its starting point.
Course: MKT 615 International Marketing Management
Frequency: 1.5 hours each week for 6 weeks
Class size: 75
In his words: “This course aims to provide students with a collection of tools (models, theories, frameworks, perspectives, concepts, and ideas) that are required for international marketing success, and to provide opportunities for students to implement these tools through various experiential learning activities.”
MKT 615 International Marketing ManagementSee materials
Lesson: Are you an international marketer?
The first in a three-session sequence on cultural competence, this lesson seeks to establish some foundational knowledge about culture and its different components.
Students prepare for the lesson with three readings:
- Cultural Metaphors (adapted from Understanding Cultural Metaphors by Martin J. Gannon, pp. 3–18) suggests the dangers of trying to simplify culture to a few dimensions.
- Note on the Culture of Sweden (John Branch) introduces several alternative approaches to modeling culture.
- The Undertow of Culture discusses the myths and misconceptions of culture, and as the challenges and opportunities that cultural differences present in marketing.
Here is how he conceived the quiz and subsequent lessons, all of which are designed to help students develop a greater understanding and appreciation of other societies and their unique cultures.
Create a tough and compelling quiz
Branch starts the lesson by administering a 10-question quiz titled, “Are You an International Marketer?” It is—by design—very difficult, asking 9 questions that relate directly to the 9 elements that define a culture: 1) communication systems, 2) metaphysical beliefs, 3) social systems, 4) economics, 5) education, 6) friendships, 7) technology and transformation, 8) government and politics, and 9) aesthetics. There is also a bonus question.
Tough quiz examples
- Which small Central Asian country celebrated recently the 1,000th anniversary of its national folkloric tale Manas?
- In which North African country was the music style rai created?
Students take the test in groups, but even with each other’s help, they typically score low (2–4 out of 10). This provides a bit of shock value, as students discover that they do not know as much as they think they do about other cultures.
Go beyond checking off correct answers
After some time, Branch goes through the quiz—question by question—giving the answers. For each question, he introduces its underlying cultural theme and begins to discuss why it matters in the context of international marketing.
Discuss cultural understandings—and misunderstandings
The quiz answers become the starting point for a wide-ranging Socratic discussion of the importance of culture in international marketing. “The quiz alone might take 15–20 minutes if you went straight through, but we end up spending close to an hour with all of these converging and diverging conversations,” Branch says.
This is where Branch answers the question “Who cares?” by looking at the importance of cultural understanding and what happens when it is lacking.
“At this point, I ask students for examples of marketing gaffes: situations in which businesses made flawed choices by not understanding a particular thematic dimension of culture,” Branch says. “They bring up funny stories, and I have countless examples. It illustrates how cultural competence is a necessary skill for marketers.”
Reexamine the big picture
Branch concludes the session with a summary of what has been covered. “Students learn an important lesson from this discussion about how to move beyond the superficial, to an understanding of why cultural differences exist, and to what you can do as an international marketer to become more sensitive to those cultural differences.”
He also believes that students can learn important life skills from this lesson, even if they never use their knowledge in a business context. “Just developing more curiosity and awareness about other cultures, and having more sensitivity to cultural differences and empathy for others, is a good life skill,” he says.
Branch has ample anecdotal evidence that his quiz-based approach engages students. “Students have a blast doing it, and they seem to get a lot out of it,” he says. “There is a lot of evidence that students learn better and deeper when they are having fun, and I see that with this activity. Weeks later, they will still be referring to the 9-element model and the themes. I can see they are still resonating with them throughout the course.”
He encourages others to use the quiz-based approach and sees applications in a broad range of disciplines. “I would encourage instructors in other disciplines to look at some of the seminal models in their fields—models that are broken down into 5 or 7 or 9 components—and think teaching these models through some sort of quiz, in order to bring the models to life,” he says.