Bernd Schmitt

“Linguistic Effects on Consumer Behavior in International Marketing Research”

Coauthor(s): Shi Zhang, Hillary Haley.

Editors: Subhash C. Jain


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In recent years, there has been a wealth of research examining the relevance of culture to consumer behavior. This chapter reviews a particular line of work within this larger body of research: work investigating the unique relevance of language. Our review finds that both structural features of language (properties of grammar) and lexical-semantic and phonological features of language (related to writing systems) are important. More specifically, current work suggests that these language features affect how consumers perceive, and also respond to, various marketing stimuli (e.g., advertisements and brand names). Our review summarizes and integrates a number of related findings, and highlights their practical significance.

International marketing research has focused more and more heavily on the topic of cross-cultural consumer behavior. And this research has observed important cross-cultural differences in the processing, evaluation, and judgment of brand and product information. Much of this work suggests that cultural differences stem from pervasive socio-cultural or cognitive factors. For example, a good deal of research demonstrates that people have broad, culture-specific cognitive dispositions like individualism or collectivism, which can guide consumer behavior (e.g. Aaker and Williams 1998; Hofstede 1980; Triandis 1989). Other work has built upon these fundamental findings, showing that there are specific conditions under which such dispositions are especially likely to affect consumer choice (e.g. Aaker and Lee 2001; Briley, Morris, and Simonson 2000, Weber and Hsee 2000).

Another line of research has turned the focus to language. This research, with roots in cognitive psychology and marketing alike, submits that a given culture's language can play a vital role in determining consumer perceptions, evaluations, and decisions (e.g., Hunt and Angoli 1991; Luna and Peracchio 2001; Schmitt, Pan and Tavassoli 1994; Schmitt and Zhang 1998; Tavassoli 1999, 2001; Tavassoli and Han 2001; Zhang and Schmitt 1998). In this chapter, we will take a closer look at this psycholinguistic research, and discuss how this research informs current thinking about cross-cultural marketing issues.

Specifically, we will discuss two areas of current psycholinguistic work: work on the structural features of language (properties of grammar), and work on the phonological and lexical-semantic features of language (related to writing systems). Turning our attention first to work on structural features, it should be noted that. such work stems from the so-called 'Whorfian Hypothesis' (Whorf 1956), or the basic idea that language can affect cognition. In 1991, Hunt and Angoli combined this original hypothesis with knowledge from cognitive psychology to purpose that language might affect consumer categorization of both single objects and groups of objects (Hunt and Agnoli 1991). These early predictions were important, as they laid the ground for fruitful empirical work. Namely, in recent work conducted in a consumer behavior marketing context, we have found that structural aspects of a language can in fact critically affect one of the most basic aspects of consumer behavior -categorization of products (Schmitt and Zhang 1998; Zhang and Schmitt 1998).

The second area of research we will discuss concerns the phonological and lexical-semantic aspects related to different types of languages and their writing systems (Zhang and Schmitt 2001, 2002). Like grammar, phonology and semantics are fundamental building blocks to a linguistic system and should therefore have an impact on consumer behavior. In our research, we have explored phonology and semantics by 1ooking at naming in the context of phonological and logographic writing systems. This research shows that how much consumers like a brand name (specifically, a brand name translation) can importantly depend on whether that name depicts phonological or semantic characteristics of the original name. As we will see, this research involves very practical implications for marketers and brand managers operating in a global environment.

Source: Handbook of Research in International Marketing
Exact Citation:
Zhang, Shi, Bernd Schmitt, and Hillary Haley. "Linguistic Effects on Consumer Behavior in International Marketing Research." In Handbook of Research in International Marketing. Ed. Subhash C. Jain. Cheltenham, England; Northampton, Mass.: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2003.
Place: Cheltenham, England; Northampton, Mass.
Date: 2003