Chrysler & the PT Cruiser: A Cross-Cultural Case Study

A French office is like a royal court; a German office is a well-oiled machine.

As we’ve discussed over the past few weeks, analogies are simple mental models that can aid cross-cultural understanding.

While behavioral changes are inevitable when working a new culture, it can be impractical to completely alter your cultural identity. Analogies provide a rough blueprint so you can play by the rules.

They show you how another system works by transposing that system onto a concept that’s relatable to you.

Analogies aren’t perfect, but they do enable you to better comply with behavior in another culture which will make you more effective as a colleague or manager.

Instead of making decisions from the bias of your own cultural anchor, by understanding the structure of the workplace, you better understand its mechanics and are able to intuit decisions that more appropriately align.

If you don’t have a zookeeper to come up with an analogy for you – like an expat or local who’s worked in a similar cross-cultural capacity – observe the nuances of the culture and create your own simple but clear analogy to use as a mental model.

Here’s one example of how author and professor, Clotaire Rapaille, did just that.

The Culture Code

Having been exposed to numerous cultures in childhood, it was natural for Rapaille to dedicate his life to researching the differences of cultures around the world.

In doing so, he became a personal advisor for CEOs of top global companies and is on retainer for many Fortune 100 companies.

By applying basic analogies in his book, The Culture Code, his concise observations of other cultures make cross-cultural understanding more efficient.

Chrysler Case Study

One case study Rapaille presented in The Culture Code involved the development of Chrysler’s PT Cruiser.

Data from focus groups helped Chrysler analyze and understand the “code” of American car consumers.

What did they find?

  • A car means family: For Americans, the family car is made important during primary socialization. Therefore, the nostalgia of childhood and family are aspects entering into this code.
  • A car means freedom: As with most things American, owning a car in one’s youth means owning freedom in more ways than one. It was found that 80 percent of Americans have their first sexual experience in the backseat of a car.
  • A car means identity: There is a strong correlation between a person’s car and their identity in the U.S. In some ways, you are what you drive.

Considering this data, it’s clear that there’s a powerful emotional relationship between Americans and their cars.

As production planning for the PT Cruiser went into effect, German car manufacturer Daimler-Benz (Mercedes) took over Chrysler.

The German culture’s relationship with their vehicles is much different.

The legal driving age in Germany is 18, so the correlation between youthful freedom (and the nostalgia of a first sexual experience in a car) isn’t as common.

Moreover, German cars are ubiquitous with quality engineering. The focus is on advanced technology rather than on the powerful emotional relationship a consumer might have with their car.

Due to these differences in culture, the PT Cruiser project was not as successful as it could have been.

While the retro and individualistic design of the Cruiser pushed the right buttons for the American consumer, the German executives ignored this, instead focusing on the vehicle’s modest quality engineering.

They assumed the PT Cruiser would be a marketing disaster and consigned its production to a small plant in Mexico.

Because of this decision, supply couldn’t keep up with demand, when the car became a big hit with Americans.

The company could have sold much more in the first year had Daimler-Benz better understood and catered to the culture of the American car market.

This is one example where exploiting a cultural analogy (one shaped by family, freedom, and identity) could have guided decision-making and led a company to greater commercial success.

Cultural Bias: Using Ethnocentricity to Your Advantage

Ethnocentrismthe evaluation of other cultures according to preconceptions originating in the standards and customs of one’s own culture.

We’ve been discussing this theme for the past few weeks. And that’s because ethnocentrism is innate in all of us. Although it seems like a type of bias only present in uneducated or prejudiced people, even the most “woke” individual, even those who study cross-cultural differences professionally, even those experts who produce management literature are all subject to ethnocentricity.

For instance, Maslow’s pyramid of needs is ethnocentric. The “needs” in question are not universal; they’re the needs of those from western cultures.

So, being that we are all subject to our own innate cultural bias, how do we use ethnocentricity to our advantage?

Overcoming Your Own Cultural Bias

We are programmed through primary socialization and further cultural conditioning to view our way of life as the most logical. We consider other cultures to be “wrong,” while ours is “right” and should be universal.

This is ethnocentricity in a nutshell.

Even when we are well aware of our cultural bias, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to overcome.

While we may not be able to avoid ethnocentrism completely, in a cross-cultural workplace, it’s essential to accept that our values are not universal, nor are they absolute.

This is the first step to altering our perspective of another culture’s values and norms and adapting our behaviors accordingly.

In order to thrive in a foreign culture, acceptance and tolerance will melt ethnocentrism’s hard edges.

Next, you must adopt the fresh new “rights and wrongs,” standards, and methods of the new business environment.

Doing so may feel unnatural to you, but your willingness to adjust to the other culture’s standards will allow you to succeed in that new culture, as it demonstrates respect.

Play It to Your Advantage

Taking this all a step further, you may use ethnocentrism to your advantage in business.

This is more applicable to specific aspects – like playing to your customer base, for instance.

If you’re opening an American hotel chain in America, for example, you’d likely highlight the new spacious rooms, the modern conveniences, the privacy and security of the hotel, the staff’s professionalism.

But if you were opening that same hotel in Albania, you know that Albania’s hospitality index is through the roof, so you might focus your press release on the personal nature of the hotel’s hospitality, its traditional and homey atmosphere, and its family feel to accommodate Albanian values.

The point is, awareness of your own ethnocentricity – and that of the culture in which you’re doing business – can often help you work, communicate, and promote effectively across cultures.

Ethnocentricity: When Subjective Bias Enters Cross-Cultural Research

Culture has a four-corner foundation.

To recap, the four main building blocks are:

These four categories, in particular, will not only aid your understanding of cross-cultural differences, but they’ll allow you to adapt your managerial methods when leading across cultures.

Below is an overview of these four building blocks.

monkey_charts_CMYK

 

As you can see, countries are scattered across the scale from left to right, accordingly. But one of these countries remains in place.

The United States.

The US always appears on the far left of the scale.

Why?

Because of ethnocentricity.

What is Ethnocentricity?

Ethnocentricity involves judging other cultures based on the values of your own.

Even great researchers, like Geert Hofstede, haven’t managed to design a purely objective framework in their studies on cross-cultural differences.

Their own cultural heritage inevitably appears in their research via charts like this one and through constant comparisons (and often biases) between their own culture and “the other.”

Simply put, the values and standards we find most important to our own culture are often what we deem worthy of study and comparison.

Religion, norms, language, customs, ideology – these are the attributes we compare in order to understand cultural identity. And, whether or not the intention for bias is there, those conducting the study determine their culture to be “right” and the other to be “wrong.”

Although ethnocentrism may sound wholly negative, it is psychologically innate.

The US vs. China

Let’s look at an example.

When cross-cultural research is done from an American viewpoint, individualism is often a highly valued criterion.

Moreover, the future-oriented, rule-oriented, and self-determined United States swing their bias of time valuation, personal vs. societal responsibility, and locus of control in the relative directions.

These “typically American” values force the U.S. to the far end of a spectrum of the four building blocks of culture, as these are important values to Americans and are highly considered when categorizing cross-cultural research.

If, say, China was conducting the same research, their spectrum – and where they landed on the spectrum – would undoubtedly differ.

China would evaluate other cultures according to their own valued criteria.

These criteria would likely have roots in collectivist, rather than individualist ideology. The way other cultures relate to their own values would form the subjective and ethnocentrist results that cross-cultural research often takes on.

Next week, we’ll delve more deeply into ethnocentrism and discuss how it directly manifests in cross-cultural research.