Marketing successfully across different cultures

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 among 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.

I’ll further explore this subject with an introduction to bridging cultural differences with businesses in East Asia.

Cultures are variably receptive to marketing messages

Marketing research, described in Part I of this blog article, underscores the following–

  • First, making simple cultural/demographic assumptions often results in companies underestimating the broader appeal of their products outside of conventional ethnic/other group boundaries.
  • Second, cultural preferences are learned/chosen over time and not inevitably determined by the ethnic identity of a person’s family of origin.  Therefore, preferences for food, music, sports, food and fashion can be highly individual and not necessarily anchored in one’s cultural roots.
  • Third, the most likely place to find consumers with multicultural tastes are large metropolitan areas where diverse ethnic groups have a strong, broad impact on product and entertainment expenditures.

Numerous factors play into intercultural marketing

Effective intercultural marketing demands in-depth analysis across a number of key variables. While there are commonalities, for example, within Western European and East Asian regions, there also are dramatic variations.

Different cultures are variably receptive to marketing messages that are direct or indirect; explicit or implicit; rational or emotional. Some groups respond better to messages that are persuasive; others resonate more to supporting information (e.g., the Germans and Americans), while some (e.g., the French and Italians) respond better to ‘dream-oriented’ fantasy pitches. Cultures that are more fatalistic are more likely to be influenced by persuasive and/or dream-like marketing.

  • The Japanese prefer indirect, soft-sell messages and are turned off by hard sell. They respond to advertisements that stress tradition, the family and respect for the elderly. Like the Chinese, and unlike Americans, they are more receptive to status symbology, aka “brand snob appeal”. That said, price still trumps brand for the average East Asian consumer.
  • International marketers are advised to infuse their marketing messages with symbolic allusions in France and Sweden. Preference for product information corresponds with higher education levels and, consequently, is more ingrained in developed (First World) European and East Asian consumers.  Consequently, information-oriented print media–including Internet written content–have greater impact/value in developed nation cultures.
  • Finally, there is significant variation between different national cultures on the amount of price and warranty information provided (Korean marketing emphasizes it the most; Japanese marketing, by contrast, seldom refers to price information).

What the Chinese Consumer Wants

China’s economy will soon be the largest in the world. The increasingly middle class Chinese consumer responds best to soft sell marketing that emphasize collective rather than individualistic values.

IKEA and other large corporations have successfully used strategies that companies wanting to break into this vast market should consider adopting.

They include–

  • Focus on ‘product fit, price, location (there are many regional sub-markets in China), and promotional strategies that synch with the local culture;
  • Tailoring their marketing to the culture of each regional market, though that is only one among a number of key factors they consider;
  • Capitalizing on Chinese consumers’ reliance, first on TV, and, second, on word-of-mouth, for product selection. The Internet is a rapidly rising influence. The average Chinese consumer spends more time researching product choices before making a purchase than is the case for the average Westerner;
  • The increasing appreciation among Chinese consumers for products with aesthetic appeal and a corresponding growing demand among the Chinese upper middle and upper classes for high quality, luxury goods; and
  • Playing to the Chinese definition of shopping as entertainment, an enjoyable way to spend their leisure time.