East meets West: Marketing in multicultural Australia

What gives us our identity is not so much what we look like, as our past experiences. Past experiences accumulate over our lives, one event after another to create our memories that we can think about, replay in our mind’s eye and use as a basis for future decisions.

Evidence for memories as the custodian of our identity comes from a case study of a patient called ‘HM’ (Henry Molaison) that had the part of his brain’s hippocampus removed. The hippocampus is responsible for forming new memories from experiences. As a consequence, each day that passed, HM was less able to recognise himself in the mirror each morning, losing his identity more and more each day. 

Memory of an event don’t exist in isolation in the brain. Think of memory as two bodies of water, each dyed a different colour that meet at a specific point. The meeting point is clear and easy to identify. But soon, the two colours start to coalesce, becoming harder to see where the original meeting point was. The moment a memory is stored it seems colourful and realistic, but soon it mingles past experiences, expectation and the context in which the memory formed.

Context does not only change what we remember, it also influences how different cultures see the world in the first place. Studies by the renowned psychologist Richard Nisbett and others have shown that Westerners and Asians physically see the world differently. When participants’ eye movements are tracked as they look at pictures, the Asian participants tend to focus on the background, whereas Westerners focus on the foreground. Asians also tend to look holistically, for example, when they interpret their environment; what the different elements are in a scene and the relationships between the elements (e.g. ‘cow’ belong to ’grass’ rather than ‘chicken’ because ‘cows eat grass’). Westerners, on the other hand think in terms of categories (e.g. ‘cow’ belong to ’chicken’ rather than ‘grass’ as a cow and a chicken belong to the same category (animal). 


These ways of thinking is fundamental and have far-reaching consequences for how Australian businesses can be affected by culture. Australia finds itself in a unique situation in that it is seen as a developed, Western nation in close physical proximity to Asia markets. More than 1 in every 4 Australians are born overseas, many of which are Asian. In 2013, 20 percent of immigrants to Australia were from Asian descent.

So businesses have to ask themselves: do we only focus on the image of the car to attract customers’ attention, or do we pay more attention to the behaviour and experiences of the other family members as well? Do we consider the effect our decisions will have on our relationships with other employees in other divisions, or do we only focus on the people on whom it has an immediate effect?

However, not all decisions need to take culture into account. Some behaviour are part of ‘human universals’ – behaviour that holds over any culture all over the world. For example, when two different groups of people are asked whether they prefer to remove features on a car (reducing costs) or to add features on a basic model (increasing price), all participants, irrespective of culture, end with more features when they start with the high number of features than when they add features.

Culture is not simply an add-on to behaviour. People act and think the way they do first and foremost because of the societies they live in.



Nisbett, R., 2004. The geography of thought: How Asians and Westerners think differently… and why. Simon and Schuster.

Barden, P.P., 2013. Decoded: The science behind why we buy. John Wiley & Sons.

Schacter, D.L., 2002. The seven sins of memory: How the mind forgets and remembers. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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