When we consider the culture of a group of people, we often think of its nationality, the country in which this group resides or from which they have come. Culture, however, is almost another matter entirely. While nationality has something to do with culture, there are subcultures within nationalities, subcultures even within subcultures, and not knowing the intricacies of those customs and beliefs, those rituals and religions, can be detrimental to your efforts in international marketing. By its very nature, international marketing demands a global mindset with the utmost respect for localities.
Knowing the culture of the people to whom you are trying to market is important not only because such knowledge indicates a certain level of respect, but because a failure to do so can lead to some embarrassing and, in terms of money and reputation, damaging results. Here are some examples of the consequences of inadequate research before an attempt at international marketing:
- Making assumptions about cultures can get a company into trouble. One of these seemingly harmless assumptions is that everyone wants white teeth. When Pepsodent tried to sell its toothpaste to a certain culture in Southeast Asia, it did so by marketing it as toothpaste that “whitens your teeth.” The trouble was the local native population went out of their way to blacken their teeth by chewing betel nuts, a characteristic they found attractive.
- Running a commercial featuring a man sponging his wife’s back in the shower would hardly raise an eyebrow in American culture, so Proctor & Gamble did not think twice about running it in Japan. The trouble is, such an image is considered inappropriate in Japanese culture, and the commercial was poorly received.
- Thai culture considers animals to be a form of low life, not respected and not considered “cute” like in some other cultures. When an eyeglass company featured ads with “cute” animals wearing their glasses, the ad was not successful.
- “Mist” in German means dung. Mist Stick is a curling iron. It is not difficult to imagine the reaction by the German public when Clairol tried to market their “dung stick” curling iron.
- Imagine boarding a plane from a foreign country. According to their customs, it is good form to have every passenger walk under a ladder, break a mirror, and they have a litter of black cats cross the tarmac in front of the plane before taking off. All these superstitions and beliefs would do little to put your mind at ease. American Airlines did something of the sort when they handed their passengers boarding from Hong Kong white carnations. What was a gesture of good will was not received well, as in Asian culture white flowers are symbols for bad luck and death
There are few areas in which an international marketing firms need to be more sensitive than in the arena of religion. One misstep in this area of a culture can mean the difference between showing respect for what many cultures hold as the most important aspect of life and being seen as a company with no respect for what other cultures hold most dear.
Religion and the Market – An article about the importance and usefulness of religion in international marketing.
When does Culture Matter in Marketing? – An article from The Stanford School of Business on culture, including religion, and marketing.
Cultural Values and Marketing in Malaysia – An example of how values such as religion play a vital role in consumer behavior.
On the Influence of World Religions on International Trade – This article explores how trade is not only an exchange of goods, but a cultural exchange as well.
Religion Information – Full profiles of most of the world’s religions, followed by a chart of statistics regarding the populations of those religions in the world’s nations.
Values and Attitudes
It seems the whole of successful Internet marketing may boil down to one key principle: Do your research. Having a firm grasp on the values and attitudes not only of nationalities but of subcultures within those nationalities can be the difference between resounding success and devastating, embarrassing failure. Even if an entire marketing campaign months in the making has to be scrapped at the last minute, this is always preferable to insulting a culture, or even just having them laugh at your ad because of something lost in translation. Remember, they are laughing at ineptness, not cleverness.
Web Site Adaptation – Learn how even website designs differ depending on the attitudes of the people being marketed to.
Culture and Internet Consumption – The methods used in cross-cultural Internet marketing say a lot about how international marketing is affected by cultural values.
Advertising Appeals and Cultural Values in TV Commercials – This comparison of Hong Kong and Korea illustrates how different cultures view and evaluate marketing.
The Effect of Chinese Cultural Values – This study on how Chinese cultural values affect the marketing strategies of Western small businesses is a perfect illustration of the above information.
How US Customers Evaluate Japanese Products – The Western world has its biases as well, and they are brought to light in this study by Hofstra University.
Implications for US Firms – Learn how emerging global marketing strategies are affecting US-based companies.
While it might be appealing to come up with a clever wordplay requiring prior knowledge, like a modification of a famous Shakespearean quote, there are some cultures for which the ad would simply not work. Take into account the average level of education of the people to whom you are marketing a product. This does not simply mean considering the level of compulsory education within a nation, but the real statistics within localities. Yes, there are many nations with a decade or more of compulsory education, but if you are marketing a product in a rural or poor community that does not have a high literacy rate, perhaps the better marketing campaign relies more on pictures.
Literacy Rates around the World – Know the literacy rates of any nation to which you would like to market a product.
Literacy Percentages – Compared to the total population, how many people are illiterate in any given nation.
College Education around the World – The accessibility, affordability, and graduation rates of colleges worldwide.
Technology and Demand
The most clever, inspiring ad ever created is still unsuccessful if it does not take into account the technology available to the people to whom you are marketing. For example, if you are marketing the latest computers to a rural community for whom electric power is a luxury, is unreliable, or is non-existent, your ad might create a desire for a product, but hardly a demand. There has to be an infrastructure in place to transport and otherwise make available a certain good, and the people who buy it must be able to actually use it for an ad to be successful. Desire is nice, but demand is profitable.
Global Information Technology – Rankings of countries according to the Networked Readiness Index.
Laws and Politics
A key consideration before deciding to market a product to a certain culture is the manner in which that culture is governed. If, for instance, you decide to market a product in a culture with laws based upon capitalism and precedent, you will have greater leeway in the marketing methods you can employ to meet your needs. On the other hand, when trying to market to a culture governed by a theocracy or otherwise strict ruling body, your options may need to be reconsidered.
International Marketing Issues – Fast facts about how successful marketing can take place in a country when laws and politics are considered.
Global Strategic Marketing Planning – This study from International Marketing Review brings together the factors influencing global strategy
While so many of the warnings regarding international marketing revolve around not offending people, there is one area of advertising that is more about luring people to the products you would like them to buy. This area is aesthetics, or artistic direction. Spend time in the country in which you are looking to advertise. See how the artistic design changes from country to country, or even city to city, and what kinds of ads turn the most heads. Whereas an ad run in America featuring small white text on a large black billboard might seem stark and cool to Americans, it might be seem as boring and cold to people of another culture.
Toward a Critical Theory of Advertising – How do people around the world read ads, and how can aesthetics affect that?
Additional International Marketing Resources:
American Marketing Association – A professional association dedicated to the practice and teaching of marketing worldwide.
Introduction to Global Marketing – A more in-depth look at the evolution and framework of international marketing.
Conducting International Marketing Research – This study from New York University sheds light on what Internet marketing research will be like in the 21st century.
The Federation of International Trade Associations – An excellent resource providing benefits, services, and resources to the international trade community.
Export.gov – A site provided by the US Department of Commerce as a resource for market research information
Country Profiles – The British Broadcasting Corporation provides you with brief, useful profiles of nations around the world, reducing the chances of international misunderstandings.
Everything International – Written and maintained by Philadelphia University which offers links and resources for international trade.
Country, Economy, and Regional Information – Provided by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, this site includes facts about the people, history, political conditions, and more about every country.
The Principles of Marketing Research – Researching the cultures to which you would like to market is essential for success. Here is a primer for doing just that.
Encyclopedia of the Orient – Information about education, religions, politics, art, etc., to help you in market research.
Ranking of Marketing Journals – Learn which marketing journals are the most trusted in the industry.
International Marketing Research – New research coming from nations around the world are constantly forcing companies to reevaluate their marketing strategies.