Three Ways Cultural Differences Can Influence Global Marketing

Whether your company is poised to take its product global or looking to build on its existing international presence, you need to ensure the message customers hear is the one you meant to convey, taking into account cultural differences that may affect the way your messages are received.

Translation decisions that result in an embarrassing or simply head-scratching message can stop your global campaign’s progress in its tracks. But getting the words right is only a beginning: connotations, images, and even abstract graphic choices such as color will be interpreted by your audience according to their own traditions and practices and may end up sending a different message from what you intended. In short, cultural differences matter.

Global Marketing and the Color of Success

Color is a universal element of good web design (unless you’re confined for technical reasons to black and white). But the associations people have with various colors and how they receive that color in an ad are shaped by their culture.

As noted at Nations Online, for example, brides in China don’t traditionally wear white. Rather, the color most often associated with brides and weddings is red, which symbolizes blooming, joy and vitality. Although white can signify a sense of purity similar to western marriages, it surrounds death and mourning in certain Chinese contexts. This is probably not the message a wedding-themed ad campaign intends to convey.

Surprises in color can arise from local circumstances as well as broader cultural traditions. According to international marketing manager Mohamed Khalifa, UPS repainted all of its trucks in Spain after it realized the brand’s familiar brown shade happened to be the same color used for Spanish hearses.

What Not to Wear When Flying

Color isn’t the only thing that can send the wrong message. Chad Brooks of Business News Daily writes of a US airline that once sought to promote its leather seats with an ad campaign, Fly in Leather. The Spanish translation (Vuela en Cuero) was fine for most Latin American countries.

But prospective customers from Mexico got a laugh out of it, as in Mexican popular culture, this tag line also meant “fly naked.” Unfortunately for the airline, the humorous mistake did little to instill confidence in its professionalism, let alone motivate Mexican air passengers to book its flights.

A (Cultural) Taste for Chocolate

Cultural inconsistencies in marketing can sometimes have a happy ending. According to Ann T. Jordan, author of Business Anthropology (2nd edition), a marketing mistake by a chocolate maker inadvertently launched a popular tradition in Japan wherein on Valentine’s Day, women give chocolate to the men in their lives (the men reciprocate a month later, on “White Day”).

For chocolatiers in Japan, this now means another great sales day. But a marketing campaign should not rely luck. Rather, it should use a country’s expectations as a guideline to ensure the product won’t be ill-received, even if it’s not already a staple of their community.

The lesson from all these miscues is that culture affects the ways that people see, hear, and read marketing messages. This is what localization is all about: making sure your message says what you want it to say, not just in text, but in all the subtle cues with which your customers may be more familiar.

Accurate translation, aided by good translation software, is the crucial first step in reaching out to global customers who, at the end of the day, should be treated as neighbors. But this is only the beginning of an effective global content strategy. When reaching customers around the world, cultural sensitivity and awareness of their differences is not only a virtue; in challenging the global market, it is a potential touchstone to your business from now on.

Learn More

Join us on Tuesday, September 22nd for GLOBAL-READY: Multilingual content strategies that improve global acquisition rates, a webinar that will explore a better approach to reaching customers around the world using the right strategy, the right message, and the right technology.

Ready to get started? Smartling can help you develop a global content strategy that will drive development of native brand experiences that will propel you into new markets, enhance your market penetration strategy, fuel international growth and increase your bottom line. Contact us today for a demo of the Smartling Global Fluency Platform – so that your brand can be everywhere.

About Rick Robinson

Rick is a "near-native" Californian with a background in computer linguistics. He writes about technology and the technology industry, as well as a personal blog about space travel and related subjects. His first novel, CATHERINE OF LYONESSE, was recently published by Random House UK.