Power distance reflects extent to which members of a society accept an unequal distribution of power as a de facto element of life. Wealth disparities, political agency or lack thereof, and social hierarchies are all facets of how power might be distributed and exercised in a given country.
The Power Distance Index (PDI) assigns a numerical score to each country based on the degree to which individuals there embrace or reject the notion of a hierarchical society. Countries with a higher PDI may have substantial wealth gaps, unequal access to services, and a top-down concentration of political power. Conversely, countries with lower PDI scores tend to favor more egalitarian social practices, political structures and salary standards.
I’m a marketer, not a sociologist. What does this mean for me?
Global marketing is all about understanding cultural differences in order to communicate with your audience in the most effective way. Though power distance might seem more the domain of political scientists and NGOs, you can use the PDI of your target market in order to shape your brand communications and experiences to complement their expectations.
Markets with higher PDI might respond more strongly to endorsements from celebrities and authority figures, official certificates and approvals, or even the use of national symbols and iconography, and you’ll want to design your website with a clear and orderly layout. In low-PDI countries, transparency is paramount, as are user reviews and testimonials, and you’re free to explore more non-traditional web design approaches.
McDonald’s embraces its power in Malaysia.
When designing a web experience for users in societies with high PDI, cater to their expectations by providing an organized, hierarchical interface. Respect for authority is taken for granted, and so you’re free to position yourself as the final word in your field. Streamline the decision-making process by laying out the desired path in advance, including the information you feel is most important for users to know.
Malaysia scores 100 on Hofstede’s PDI, making it one of the highest-ranking countries in this regard. For the Malaysian market, McDonald’s created a vertically scrollable website, and though a small menu bar is also present, freedom of navigation is primarily restricted to a single downward action. Users are urged to “trust” McDonald’s commitment to halal practices, with certificates prominently displayed on the relevant page, but only after learning about the company’s community initiatives and menu items.
In Sweden, the power is with the people.
You’ll want to flip these principles around when crafting websites for cultures with low PDI. Communication goes two ways, and many workplaces feature flat structures as opposed to the top-down management style found in more traditional organizations.
Display social media likes and user reviews to demonstrate your favorable standing with others in your target market, and encourage customers to provide feedback on their experiences with your brand. Trust and custom are earned, not expected, so be prepared to provide detailed information to allow your customers to reach their own decisions.
Sweden’s PDI score is 31, which while not the lowest—Austria’s is 11—is still comparatively low on the scale. McDonald’s Swedish site scrolls sideways, not vertically, echoing a more egalitarian presentation of choices. Within easy reach are invitations to leave feedback and learn about the ingredients McDonald’s uses in its food, both key aspects for an optimal low-PDI design.
Know when to lead and when to step back.
Be respectful of the expectations your customers have across the world, and shape your role in their decision-making processes accordingly. Customers used to power disparities will expect you to guide their journey, providing them with the information that’s most important from a position of trusted and dependable authority. Conversely, users from cultures with flatter hierarchies demand the right to forge their own paths, cherishing transparency above all else from their favorite brands. Either way, when you position yourself as a part of their ingrained worldview, you’re all the more likely to create a meaningful connection.