Accommodating Communication

Should communication be adapted for local markets or be consistent and global?  Accommodation theory was developed in the 70s by Howard Giles and others, and describes the process where we adapt communication styles (word choice, accent, dialect and other aspects) to minimise the social distance between ourselves and others (or in some contexts we may do the opposite and emphasise or maximise the social distance). The theory argues that such behaviour is noticed and appreciated by others, as we all find those similar to us more attractive and persuasive (as Robert Cialdini explains).

In marketing communication and design, this means that the more designers and marketers ‘accommodate’ the target audience, the more favourable will be their response.  This can be done by adapting language and contextual cues, using iconic representations (see my previous post) or more abstractly through the communication of deeper meanings through metaphors and symbolism (as discussed here). The strength of response to such accommodation will depend on the level of acculturation of the target audience (how strongly they identify with the culture and it’s values).

To understand the values that a target group identify with, it is important to understand the reference groups which they use use as a point of comparison. Such groups establish norms of behaviour and can have a tremendous impact on the products they buy, the experiences they enjoy and the way they behave.  There are typically three groups that should be understood.

Associative reference groups are the groups we belong to either formally (our school class) or informally (our friends who we meet at the pub on Friday night). Aspirational reference groups are those to which we would like to belong but are currently not members of (groups we have high esteem for, such as film stars or musicians especially among youth groups). Dissociative reference groups are the groups we do not want to belong to because they have values and attitudes that we dislike or do not wish to emulate (for example, any football team other than the one we support).  All such reference groups can be leveraged to exert influence through communication styles.

Communication and design can and should be adapted to accommodate and leverage the values of relevant reference groups in order to maximise effectiveness. Sometimes common values may be found which can work across multiple cultures by tapping into a more global ‘reference group’ or value, but always consider how you can minimise the distance between you and your audience to maximise impact.


Basics Marketing 01: Consumer Behaviour by Hayden Noel (2009)

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