Cultural Distinctions In Service

This past week I travelled to Asia. My first stop was in Singapore to help launch Euro RSCG’s retail and shopper marketing capability called Shop@Euro. Then I made my way to India to discuss how best to use data to gain a sustainable advantage in the new global economy. My speech in India was titled – A New Imperative for the New Economy.

I flew on four different airlines during this trip. United Airlines from Chicago to Singapore. Singapore Airlines from Singapore to New Delhi. Kingfisher Airlines (a local entrant) from New Delhi to Mumbai and Lufthansa Airlines from Mumbai to Chicago (with a stop in Frankfurt).

The service on all four of the airlines was absolutely terrific. What interested me was how each airline delivered great service — albeit in very different ways.

After pondering the differences, I’ve come to a simple distinction in service styles: Functional service versus Emotional service.

United and Lufthansa delivered service that was primarily focused on ensuring a high degree of physical comfort. On the other hand, service on Kingfisher and Singapore was centered on how I felt during the flight – going beyond physical comfort to ensure a sense of emotional calm.

Why did I experience this distinction? After considering a number of different hypotheses, I arrived at one answer: The significant difference in service is due to the unique cultural perspectives of these brands.

Western brands tend to deliver on the ethos prevalent in their context. It’s all about efficiency. Their service experience is structured to ensure that their passengers are productive. From their detailed menu to the bottled water they offer, everything enables the traveler to have control of how he or she plans to fulfill their own needs.

Eastern airlines, however, focus more on striving to deliver a relaxing experience that attempts to create a calm and quiet environment. Everything from the tone and volume of in-flight announcements to the language used by the staff. It is different than their Western counterparts and consistent with their cultural backgrounds.

My experience enjoying these completely different approaches to great service has encouraged me to evolve my understanding and appreciation of brands within a behavioral context. It also raised an interesting question:

As we continue to live in a world that’s getting more and more homogeneous, do these culturally-driven distinctions in service set new and conflicting expectations?

If so, how can brands evolve and deliver?


Categories: about me, brand strategy, consumer behavior, economic downturn, future

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10 replies

  1. Great insights, Zain. I have been working on a program which marries my long-time processes for developing an effective brand strategy with the concepts of whole brain thinking. I have joined with another consultant, Robyn Winters, who is an expert on whole brain processes, and we believe that–as you just experienced–behavior is driven not by just one part of the brain (or motivation) but rather by other parts that have different values. Therefore, part of your brain wants the efficiency that the western airlines provide, but another part wants the comforting and relaxing services of the Eastern airlines. We have often focused our marketing efforts on just one of the behavior motivators and ignored others. Thus we don’t maximize the potential of our customers and often miss some customers completely.
    Enjoy the flight.

  2. Interesting observations. Made me think of my own international airline experiences. May be a middle ground too. In my experience I found Virgin Atlantic does a lot to try to make you feel “normal”. A balance of the functional and emotional by offering the efficiency expected for business travelers, but also real creature comforts of home. They do manicures onboard, some do neck massage on board. Their lounges have hair salons, swimming pools, coffee bars, sports bars, etc that set up a sense of normalcy. Most US carriers do not attempt that.

    I also found that domestic flights in other countries can be lacking in the emotional area. China Eastern, for example, was very similar to US Airways. Fairly sterile, functional service with no emotional amenities. It may be that the emotional benefits are confined to the long haul flights where there is time to address them.

    But it is an interesting question whether globalization will set up conflicting approaches for physical and emotional benefits. I have observed it a bit in the automotive space where much innovation has come from the Korean and Japanese manufacturers who tried to understand what people do with their cars and deliver better user benefits. Quiet cabins were pioneered by Lexus. The latest Kias have high creature comfort content in low end vehicles. Interestingly, Buicks made in China have better creature comforts than those in the US. Partially because it is a higher end vehicle often used as a limo. But partially because it is a prestige name brand there with a focus on customer satisfaction.

    Much of early imports to the US have been more function driven with lower costs. We may see emergence of greater imports that offer emotional benefits, and may require adjustments by US manufacturers.

  3. Zain…Sounds like you’ve really been globetrotting! I appreciate you sharing your experiences. My reaction to your notes may be basic or as a result of not being in the field of marketing, but it strikes me that, given the globalization of the business marketplace and diversity of customers, it would make sense wherever possible to combine the different approaches you noted so that one is able to appeal to a broader customer base. The eastern and western flying experiences you reference don’t seem to be mutually exclusive – rather, each airline could incorporate into their approach the additional comforts, be it physical or emotional, on which they are not currently focused and to the extent that it doesn’t conflict with their existing program. I understand that this may not work in certain business models because it would likely result in too many conflicts, but in the airline experience, it seems like it could make sense. I suppose it would ultimately come down to a cost-benefit analysis, with the cost being easily caculated and the benefit being somewhat less easily quantifiable. Curious what you think.

  4. Very interesting post – got me thinking. It would seem in this more-than-ever competitive economy that companies that deliver on both the physical and emotion sides will succeed. In the US, Jet Blue and Southwest for example – though both haven’t nailed it yet. I think that, as far as customer expectations of cultural distinctions between countries are concerned, the sweet spot is for brands to deliver unique cultural experiences without making passengers feel uncomfortable or like they’ve lost/sacrificed something in order to get that experience. Give me something unique but don’t go too crazy — don’t scare me.

  5. Zain

    Interesting observations on western and eastern airline service levels. I think you may experience this difference if you try the different hotel chains as well. As you have pointed out there may be a basic difference in the way a western brand and an eastern brand approaches service, and this may come out of the way the western and eastern societies are organised: the power distance, uncertainty avoidance, and the many other things that Hofstede’s work was about.

  6. Some great comments. Thanks. The integration of the different cultural ethos and the consumer need of personlized solutions to their own unique needs points to opportunity space for brands that can be flexible, adaptable and nimble.

  7. Great point! The important issue is that can Customer experience be converted into a process or is it hostage to the vagaries of employee insconsistency at the front end. Have a look at another post on this at

  8. Zain
    I enjoyed reading your thoughts on service. The question you raise is an interesting one. The globalization of the business marketplace does raise issues for how an international brand ensures its identity while servicing consumers around the world with very different ethos.
    I have long been a believer that consumers gravitate to brands that are either representative of who they are or who they want to be. And I believe that service is similar. In some ways a consumer’s view of service can be compared to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. When on a flight heading to a destination, a consumer’s utmost service issue is actually one of safety, this being the most basic expectation, and then comfort and comfort as you mentioned is relative. Once a consumer’s basic service issues are met a brand needs to understand the relationship between their particular products or services and the consumer’s they wish to attract and retain. Even in an international marketplace a brand needs to be true to who they are. A service mantra should be one that clearly identifies the brand and what it wishes to portray. In some cases that may be efficiency, in others comfort but in all cases it must be true to who the brand is. The real art is to determine how a brand delivers that unique service proposition within a given global location. Efficiency may need to be represented differently in the States than in Asia. It is that formula that will ensure a consistent brand image regardless of long/lat.
    That being said Zain; I have a question for you? Would the distinctions in service cause you to select one airline over another? Or is your true service issue more basic, convenient schedules, on-time arrivals, etc.

  9. My reflections on your question of “we continue to live in a world that’s getting more and more homogeneous, do these culturally-driven distinctions in service set new and conflicting expectations?
    If so, how can brands evolve and deliver?”
    In a sense the type of service enjoyed or appreciated by the consumer is too some extent driven by the culturally-driven distinctions, the cultural relationships provide a natural comfort zone where the consumer associates their current experience to their daily experiences. This creates a challenge to blend and deliver a homogeneous product for all consumers, but in sense i feel that is not required. brand loyalty is created by unique experience and not necessarily in a give all, generic solution. In a world that’s getting more and more homogeneous, a distinctive difference will always stand out.

  10. Very provocative. I do believe the quality of these service experience will and have changed my decision on what brand to use for my next trip. Heading to London and considering an airline with a more emotive proposition.

    As Shabbir says, it is about the emotional comfort. The basic service values are green fees in today’s homogenized environment.


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