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Emic versus etic: A perspective for decision-making

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Organizational psychology, organizational effectiveness and how we all work together within the organizations we populate are complex notions that involve multiple perspectives of multiple stakeholders over multiple points in time.

Yet in the moment, the luxury of philosophical thought is not often compatible within a pressed-for-time environment.

One way to inform our thinking during these stressful moments is to consider an “emic” versus an “etic” view as we tick off the “for”s and “againt”s of various options.

Emic versus etic
"Emic” refers to the insiders’ view – that is, how a particular issue or problem (and its possible outcomes) may be viewed by the central actors within a culture. “Etic,” on the other hand, refers to the perspective of outsiders (e.g. external stakeholders). While this is largely a distinction made for research purposes and often presents from an anthropological context, it can also be quite useful within organizations to inform decisions within human resources, marketing, supply chain and other functional domains.

A marketing example: In 1994, Kellogg introduced its popular U.S. breakfast cereal Corn Flakes in India. From an emic perspective, this decision seemed to make sense. The product was hugely popular in the U.S., and India’s much larger population and growing middle class seemed to represent a growth opportunity that was almost too good to be true.

Oops
At the time, it actually WAS too good to be true – because the etic implications were not given their full due. Only after the initial failed introduction did Kellogg appreciate the fact that India had no breakfast cereal category at the time. Even worse, the company’s marketing campaign implied that traditional Indian breakfasts (typically baked doughs stuffed with spicy vegetables) were unhealthy. The effect of that effort was to alienate Kellogg’s target audience: the Indian mothers who prepared the traditional morning meal.

The lesson for those who run organizations: Don’t overlook the etic perspective; it often holds the key to the outcomes that are valued at the emic level.

Source material
Aylsworth, J. (2013) The cultural psyche of India: Guidance for the U.S. marketer.

Taneja, G, Girdhar, R, Gupta, N. (2012). Marketing strategies of global brands in Indian markets. Journal of Arts, Science & Commerce, 3, 71-78.

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