Global marketing – how to get to grips with different cultures

Photo of earth with main air travel routes highlighted.

Hundreds of years ago, Muslims from Persia and Yemen sailed across the Indian Ocean to start trading in far-flung places such as Indonesia and Malaysia. From alien cultures, following a strange new religion, these businessmen and their families had no idea of the impact they would have on the region. Indonesia now boasts the largest population of Muslims in the world.  Neighbouring countries also adopted their visitors’ ways in droves.

Related: What is the marketing mix?

“What has this got to do with global marketing?” you’re asking. Well, in short, these traders marketed themselves effectively to a foreign audience. By adapting to local cultures, learning local languages and tweaking the way they went about things, they built trust with the locals. Through that trust, they succeeded in building their businesses as well as spreading their “message” – and this is exactly what is has to do with global marketing.

Marketing is, in essence, about building trust – trust in a brand, a service, product or vision. Marketers have lots of clever ways of doing this. However, take that marketer out of their own country or culture, and they will soon realise that marketing at home is not the same as marketing abroad. One area all entrepreneurs need to get to grips with when it comes to global marketing is different cultures.

Be aware of different cultures

Why is culture important? Because it defines almost everything we do as human beings, whether you are British, Brazilian or Botswanan. Whether you know it or not, how your parents programmed you from a child, how your school educated you and how your peers interacted with you, all defined your culture – your outlook, your perceptions, your world view. Depending on where we grew up, all our cultures differ in some way or another. Some of us shake hands, others bow. Some glorify the individual, others the tribe. Some like red, others fear it. Do you get the picture?

So culture is important because, thankfully, we aren’t all the same.  How one culture perceives a marketing campaign, message or advert will differ from another – and that’s why you need to understand the cultures you plan on marketing to.

Localise, don’t translate

The numero uno mistake most marketing types make when going abroad is thinking “translation”, i.e. if we need to sell our online products in Turkey, we just need to translate everything into Turkish. Wrong. Translation, in fact, can actually damage your marketing efforts. Why? Because when you translate text, you just convert words into another language. You don’t translate the feelings, the subtle messages, the unsaid, nor the dreams when you only convert language to language.

What you need to do is localise your language. This means getting creative with your copy. So, like McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts and KFC do in places like China and Japan, you need to make your menu appeal to local tastes – but in your writing! This involves engaging with someone who appreciates the local culture and can adapt your message to their eyes and ears. For example, your edgy, slang, indie writing style may work in Canada but take it to South Korea, and it simply won’t work. You need to find the local equivalent. That is localisation.

Marketing channels

The strategy is critical when marketing abroad. As well as knowing what you want to say, you need to know where you want to say it.  Twitter might work wonders in the UK, but the Germans don’t trust it, so why would you use it in Germany? Getting PR in the USA might be about good relationships with journalists, but in Nigeria, it’s about who and how much you can pay.

Simply stated, look at the marketing channels that work in your target country and don’t think you can ignore them. Internet penetration rates vary from region to region and will indicate how “online” a potential market might be. How dependent on smartphones are the country? Do people still rely on newspapers? Who can give you that trust element you need. In some parts of Africa, having the local chief endorse a product can be the most effective marketing tool money can buy – and I bet you never thought of that!

Your brand identity

Lastly, think about your brand. What is it called, how does it sound and what does it say about you? Will it fit with the local culture? Or does it need adaptation? For example, Nike decided to go with Nai Ke in China. It sounds the same(ish), but even better it means “Endurance Conquer” – both qualities that appeal to the Chinese psyche.

Having a linguistic examination of your brand or product names is vital. If you’re launching a new drink in Germany that means “shit” do you think sales will fly? On top of this you also need to think about “marketing appeal” – what do your brand values communicate in the new culture? If you were marketing into a culture that values family, history, experience and wisdom, are you going to go in amplifying how young, new, innovative and rebellious you are?

So next time you sit down the start thinking about your global marketing ambitions or need to review your current activities, think back to those traders who sailed across the ocean with open minds and open hearts. They adapted, they localised, and they succeeded!

In this article