Bridging the Great Divide: Challenges in International Marketing

Cultural nuance

The global marketplace we live in has many inherent advantages, and a few stumbling blocks we ought to be aware of. For the unsuspecting marketer, the mistake of applying a blanket strategy to all cultural marketing initiatives is foolhardy. Most every one of us has heard those embarrassing tales that linger and leave a rather sour taste in one’s mouth. Surprisingly, these gaffes are not the exclusive domain of the uninformed, novice marketers – they are made by some of the best and the brightest in the business as well.

Whenever a product or a service is being prepared for entry into a foreign market, substantial research needs to be conducted beforehand to ensure a smooth rollout. The cross-cultural challenges faced by marketing departments often blindside initiatives and result in expensive mistakes. It’s not only small-scale enterprises that face mistakes related to cross-cultural discourse; it’s the big boys of global commerce as well. Several notable companies have endured more than their fair share of bloopers on the global stage.

Listed below is a sampling of some of the cultural challenges arising from poor communication between global enterprises and their target markets:

  • When worldwide delivery service UPS entered the Spanish market, they failed to take into account the fact that brown UPS delivery trucks resembled hearses in that country.
  • When Coca-Cola decided to market Diet Coke in Japan they were shocked to learn that Diet Coke had a rather unpleasant connotation; hence they settled on the name Coke Light.
  • Kentucky Fried Chicken failed to consider that their slogan – Finger Lickin Good – meant something entirely different in China. Eat your Fingers Off was hardly the intended message.
  • Coca-Cola has been involved in other avoidable bloopers, notably in India. Soft drinks are not typically enjoyed during meal times in India, as water is their drink of choice. This resulted in a revised marketing campaign for Coca-Cola India.
  • Pepsi decided to expand into the burgeoning Chinese market with the slogan: Pepsi Brings you Back to Life. Unfortunately, when the slogan was translated, it literally meant that people’s ancestors would be brought back from the grave.
  • Vicks is a well-known brand for cough drops, but they failed to take their name into account when they entered the German market. In Germany the word Vicks has a certain sexual innuendo which was certainly not the intended message of this cough drops brand
  • IKEA launched in Bangkok and fortunately for them they employed the services of local people to carefully examine product names and their meanings in Thailand. They were floored to learn that many IKEA products had sexual meanings in Thailand – so they made the appropriate changes.

The Lessons Learned from Cross-Cultural Oversights  

Each marketing campaign has to be evaluated in depth. What’s good for India has no bearing on what’s good for China or Thailand or Japan or Sweden or elsewhere. In fact, each society has a multitude of cultures and subcultures existing within it. Sometimes we are so blinded by our perceptions of different cultures, or lack thereof, that blunders often result. For example certain cultures are driven by gender-based decisions. Russia for instance has a majority of female doctors while the USA has a majority of male doctors. In many Middle Eastern countries, the societies are patriarchal. In many westernized countries gender equality is the order of the day.

Certain cultures enjoy risk taking – such as the USA, UK, Australia and Canada – while other cultures avoid it like the plague. Other cultural nuances are less obvious. Consider that red in China is seen as a lucky colour, while in other cultures it signifies danger. Thus the obvious challenges that await cross-cultural marketing initiatives are less important than the idiosyncrasies that characterize cultures in different countries. This all points in one direction: strategic planning.

There is no substitute for the time, energy and effort that needs to accompany any international marketing campaign. Communication is crucial to understanding, but more importantly to delivering the intended message to the target audience. In this vein, it is always advisable to have multiple native speakers to act as the go-between in international marketing campaigns.


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