Is Sweden a Low Context Culture?

Quick Read: Differences between high context and low context cultures in branding could just be theoretical. All it takes is some brilliant marketing to blur the lines in between.

High-context culture and low-context culture are terms coined by the anthropologist Edward Hall.

Theoretically this categorisation between culutures has implications on branding and communications associated to them.

For example, according to this recent article, in a high cultural context, inherent cultural cues (e.g, symbols and emotions) add a lot of meaning to asociated marketing communications. Think of ads that reference cultures like Indian, Latin American or Middle Eastern for example and you get the picture. (A great ad that references Indian culture)

Low cultural contexts, by contrast, are those where there is little influence of emotions, gestures and cultural cues over the associated marketing communications.

For example – the article goes on to state – Sweden has a low cultural context. In other words, Swedish cues and metaphors are believed to contribute little meaning to any branding/communication.

But is it? 

While differences between these cultural contexts might help us to justify to ourselves the relative decibel levels of ‘cultural noise’ that gets thrown into their respective communications (e.g., narratives in films, ads etc), communications that reflect a culture are more complex and do not necesarily confine themselves to these siloed definitions.

Let’s take Sweden for example. Why is there a stereotype that Swedish metaphors add little meaning to any associated branding or advertising?

This cultural guide to Sweden encaplsulates it well when it says “Despite the generally contented natures of the Swedes, there is an underlying melancholy most often attributed to the long, dark and cold winters.” In other words, theoretically there is nothing much beyond a brooding sense of gloom to add as ‘cultural cues’ when it comes to referencing anything Swedish.

But lately, marketers seem to have used this very subdued under tone of melancholy and turned it into a state of mind (and soul) to be celebrated as uniquely Swedish!

Now that’s not exactly how a low context culture is meant to work. Right?

Volvo ‘Vintersaga’ – Embrace the Swedish melancholy

With a montage that celebrates the miserable weather conditions of Sweden aided by some spectacular photography and echoey music, Volvo recently paid a “tribute to Sweden at it’s worst” through its Vintersaga (Winter’s tale) campaign.By capturing the country’s bleakest weather, Volvo goes on to explain that without the harsh Swedish winters it would not have become what it is today, or make the cars that it does.

Stutterheim Raincoats – ‘Swedish melancholy at its driest’

Being melancholic is an essential part of being a human being. 

…so says the philosophy page of Stutterheim’s rain coats. What for Mr. Stutterheim was initially an art project, has transformed – with a stroke of marketing genius coupled with a sharp positioning – into a line up of raincoats that are now shipped worldwide, with a price tag between $370 –  $1,400.

Stutterheim

(Source: Stutterheim’s philosophy on Melancholy and Creativity)

Apparently Swedish gloom seems to have a tremendous market demand with the brand today seeing strong growth in Europe and the U.S., with sales estimated to reach $4.8 million in 2015, up from $180,000 in 2011. (source)

After all as its philosophy goes on to say …

Through our melancholy we come up with new ways of seeing the world and new ways of being in the world. Let’s embrace Swedish melancholy. Embracing rain is a good start.

Now that’s some smart marketing that has converted something as monochromatic as Swedish melancholy into a unique (and dare I say sufficiently loud) motif of the Swedish culture.

Bonus Links: Check out this Volvo campaign that celebrates Swedish wilderness and this recent one by Grey London that celebrates Swedish….. (hold your breath & drum rolls)…. air!

Now, do you still believe Sweden is a low context culture?

Any classifications exists only as long as marketers allow it to.

Isn’t it?

(Featutured Image: Sutterheim – Swedish Melancholy At It’s Driest)

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3 thoughts on “Is Sweden a Low Context Culture?

  1. I stayed in Stockholm for while. The drunks wear designer leather jackets but they would need to wouldn;t they? And they got higher incomes than some of the workers. I found Swedes to be very direct and only melancholy when they came across (lower) European cynisism. Take Abba for example – they say what we all want to say but are afraid to say because its so open and simple. its us that are truly melancholy. We project our concept of melancholy onto Scandanavian cultures.

  2. The distinction between high an low context cultures is definitely an interesting one, however, I don’t think it’s plausible in the light of recent advancements in cognitive sciences. We know now that we all acquire our conceptual, cultural, and linguistic capacities in very much the same way and at similar stages in life as others, therefore we all share a great deal of the mental universe, which can be exploited in marketing communication. And not only at a level of a single culture, but also at the level of the whole humanity, as we all interact with the world around us in very much the same way (we have two legs, two arms, we are raised in families, etc.), therefore, a great many of our conceptual categories are universal. That is not to say, of course, that there are no cultural differences, but they definitely do not consist in certain cultural cues being more useful or semantically available.

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