Marketing successfully across different cultures, Part I

Cultural, subcultural and demographic differences

A culture is the way of life of a people. There are cultural differences from country to country and usually major cultural variations between demographic groups within a nation’s political boundaries. Such differences may encompass different languages/dialects and always include a characteristic set/subset of norms and values.

Moreover, cultural differences aren’t limited to distinctive national or ethnic identities. There also are diverse cultural norms and values between generations, between different socioeconomic groups (working class, middle class, upper middle and upper classes), even between men and women. So, variations in norms, values and ‘lingo’ may exist even within the family unit.

Marketers must continually refine their messaging to accommodate such differences lest the value of their product or service be lost in translation. This is critically important to the future success of marketers. One clear indicator of an emerging demographic sea change in the U.S.: about 43% of Millennials are not white, and, in 2011, non-Hispanic white births fell below 50% for the first time.


Here are some examples of epic marketing failures across cultures where key messages are completely lost in translation–

In Italy, a campaign for Schweppes Tonic Water failed when the product name was translated as “Schweppes Toilet Water.”

In Hong Kong, the KFC slogan, “It’s finger lickin’ good” was translated as ‘Ear your fingers off.’

In Spain, the American brewer Coors hip phrase “Turn it loose'” was translated as “Get diarrhea.” Yes, really…

In Mexico, American Airlines catchphrase “Fly in leather,” completely overlooked the slang meaning of the Spanish word for leather (cuero) as “nude.”

Finally, there is the classic GM misstep in naming one of its cars Nova (which translates into Spanish as ‘it doesn’t go’) in the 1960s and 70s.

Increasingly, cultural preferences are a matter of choice

Recent research reveals that many companies overlook actual demand for ethnic products outside the original demographically-defined target group. This is especially true for food products. Salsa, for instance, is now a mainstream American food that has outpaced catsup in revenue. The same also applies to many TV programs and other forms of entertainment. For example, suburban young white men in the U.S. constitute 80% of the demand for hip-hop music.

The primary takeaway for markets is that they need to understand the true nature of demand across groups rather than fall back on simple assumptions about ethnic preferences. This is especially true in large metropolitan areas whose populations are increasingly a blend of cultures.

In my next blog, I’ll further explore this subject with an introduction to bridging cultural differences with businesses in East Asia.

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