3 Keys to Marketing Across Cultures


If you are planning to market anything to people from a culture different from your own, doing some homework is essential. If you don’t, you may be setting yourself up for failure. But figuring out the right questions to ask and researching all the potential pitfalls can be tough and time consuming. To help expedite the process and take some of the guesswork out of the equation, I’ve created a list of 3 critical things to consider when marketing across cultures – whether you’re advertising to people in far off countries or in diverse communities on your home turf.

1. Calling out Competitors

 In the U.S., hardly anyone bats an eye when one company insults another company in an effort to market products or services. These types of “ad wars” have proven effective for those selling soft drinks (Coke vs. Pepsi), to computers (Apple vs. Microsoft), to cars (Ford vs. Chevy). But in other cultures, outwardly making fun of another person or company is not socially acceptable. In Japan, China, and other countries in Asia and the Middle East, when one company publically casts dispersions on another it can actually cause a loss of face (respect) for both companies and can make customers feel uncomfortable.

2. Me or We?

Some of most successful marketing slogans in U.S. are those that tell people how a product will make them feel special, stand out from the crowd, be the best or better than the rest. In other cultures, however, advertisers tend to focus their campaigns on how products benefit and include everyone, or how they can make you more like everyone else. There’s may also be a tendency to depersonalize messages in favor of highlighting a more holistic view of the world, reflecting the notion that it’s not just about winning or being the best, but about being part of it all.

For example:

- Everyone loves McDonald’s (Japan)      / I’m lovin’ it! (McDonalds)

- Everyone’s invited (Samsung, Korea)   /  Think Different (Apple)

- Service Before Self (Indian Army)      /   Be all that you can be (U.S. Army)

To learn more about why and how cultural programming influence personal and professional success check outwww.culturecrossing.net/book.

3. Gestures and Expressions

 When it comes to marketing it’s not safe to assume that any gesture or facial expression means the same thing across cultures. This includes dozens of behaviors including how we point, how we beckon someone or tell them to go away, what we do with our hands and arms when talking, when it’s appropriate to smile, and so on.   Something as common as the U.S. “okay” sign may cause problems in countries like Brazil where an inverted okay sign is a very crude way of saying “screw you” and in France it can imply that something is worthless. Bottom line: If you’re including images or video of people in your ads, take the time to figure out how certain gestures, postures or expressions could be misconstrued by your audience.  To find out more about smiles and other non-verbal behaviors in different countries check out the culture guide here: www.culturecrossing.net

Michael Landers is the Director of Culture Crossing. A global consulting organization dedicated to finding innovative solutions for groups and individuals working in challenging global contexts.  He is also the author of the forthcoming book Culture Crossing: Discover the Key to Making Successful Connections in the New Global Era.