5 Keys to Marketing Across Cultures

Multicultural Word CloudCross-cultural marketing is fraught with dangers if you’re not careful. Follow these five steps to ensure your marketing is received as you intended it.

Today’s post is by Michael Landers, author of Culture Crossing (CLICK HERE to get your copy).

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 five 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 United States, hardly anyone bats an eye when one company insults another in an effort to market products or services. These types of “ad wars” have proven effective for those selling soft drinks (Coke vs. Pepsi), computers (Apple vs. Microsoft), or 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 publicly casts aspersions on another it can actually cause a loss of face (respect) for both companies and can make customers feel uncomfortable.

2. Me or Us?

Some of the most successful marketing slogans in the United States are those that tell people how a product will make them feel special, stand out from the crowd, be better than the rest or the best. 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 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) versus I’m lovin’ it! (McDonalds)

– Everyone’s invited (Samsung, Korea) versus Think Different (Apple)

– Service Before Self (Indian Army) versus Be all that you can be (United States Army)

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 American “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 are 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.

4. More Than Just a Number

A lucky number in some cultures might be the mark of doom in others. Many United States hotels don’t have a thirteenth floor because of negative associations, but in Japan the fourth floor is often skipped for similar reasons. The number seven is considered lucky in many cultures, but so are other numbers. The reasons why numbers are perceived differently across cultures can be related to various factors – from historic events, cultural mythology, or their similarity to other words (“four” in Japanese sounds like the word “death” and “eight” in Mandarin sounds like the word “wealth”). Choose your numbers wisely to minimize fear and maximize rewards.

5. Lost In Translation

We all know that translation blunders can range from funny to embarrassing to offensive. They can also lead to costly mistakes. For example, advertisers hoping to target consumers in Hispanic communities in the United States first translated Got Milk? into Spanish as Are You Lactating? Not the kind of milk they had in mind. Of course, it’s not just words that can be mistranslated – so can symbols. When Nike released its flaming air logo on the back of its Air Bakin’ sneakers in 1997, it was deemed disrespectful by many because it looked very similar to the way Allah (God’s name) is written in Arabic script. Nike wound up pulling more than 38,000 pairs of sneakers out of respect for Muslims and the religion of Islam. When translating words or using symbols across cultures, check your interpretation with someone who is not only a native speaker, but who is from the particular community or region you are targeting.

Culture Crossing– 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. Landers is author of Culture Crossing: Discover the Key to Making Successful Connections in the New Global Era (CLICK HERE to get your copy).  For more information, please visit

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