Why Cultural Indifference Will Hurt Your Global Branding

When you are taking a brand abroad and start marketing globally, it would be wise to check whether your company name, logo, tag line, and marketing messaging mean something different in the regions into which you are expanding. Cultural differences in branding and marketing will impact your bottom line. Just ask our guest blogger Linda Tietje who is making the business case for localized communications.

Minding the tripwires of global marketing communication

It was a typical business exchange with an international company headquartered in Germany. After initial introductions, a call was scheduled and emails sent, when – just like that – my stomach turned. In the signature of an incoming email, I was presented with a promotional image that was trying to sell the company’s point of differentiation: Their superior technical applications. Next to the picture of a chained-up woman I read “Applications that bind you.” Ouch!

Have you ever wondered if the marketing messages you share can have a negative impact on your business’ reputation and actually hinder your sales team’s ability to do their job successfully? The answer is: Absolutely!
From H&M’s recent sweater faux-pas to Clairol’s launch of its “Mist Stick” curling iron in Germany (“mist” is German slang for manure), from IKEA’s “Fartfull” desk to Honda’s misguided “Fitta” name for a car model sold in Scandinavia to Colgate’s failed toothpaste launch in France (the new product’s name “Cue” was also the name of a French pornographic magazine) – cultural ignorance can be tremendously embarrassing and will directly impact your brand affinity, bottom line, and even team morale when it is promoted to the masses.

H&M Monkey Jungle

H&M showing how not to do it

One of the most cited “oops moments” of international marketing is that of a Swedish vacuum manufacturer. The company sold products in the United Kingdom using the slogan “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.” There is some debate about the double entendre of the word “sucks” and if Electrolux actually ran the ad in the United Stated. The slang disparagement “sucks”, which originated in American English, wasn’t used in British English at that time, so many Americans think this is an example of such a blunder. Whether the slogan was used intentionally or not isn’t relevant. Putting your product name next to the word “sucks” in a brand piece which is supposed to build (often unconscious) brand awareness is simply terrible marketing – even as a play on words.

Nothing sucks Electrolux

Look, our vacuum sucks so hard it explains the leaning tower of Pisa!

While you may know your target audience’s persona well in one country, it will be very different in another. What might sound clever or confident in one culture can be offensive in another. Some cultures prefer fact over enthusiasm, it will be different in another. Even the definition of what “great service” means will vary by country, as will your actual ability to deliver it. Imagine touting your superior service, not realizing your competition in this country is actually delivering a better experience. Not only will your message fall flat, you will also have proven that you are not trustworthy. And all these examples have not even touched the areas of technology use and regulations yet.

So how do you ensure global brand consistency throughout all markets while adapting to the unique requirements of each? How do you “think global, act local”?

1. Recognize the reality of market differences

The first step to success is acknowledging that market requirements and circumstances are not the same, and localization cannot equal simple translation. Beyond the difficulties mentioned, target audiences, product portfolios, service response times, etc., often vary by market. As a result, competitive advantages and business objectives often vary as well. These differences impact your sales strategy and should also impact your marketing strategy.

2. Create a team ready for success

Once awareness has been established, putting together a global/local communications team is another critical step in crafting relevant messages per market. Local marketing teams should consist of local experts and be closely connected with your global communications department back home to ensure fast feedback loops and a balance between global consistency and local relevance. Responsibilities and ownerships should be clearly defined between these teams, giving global teams brand oversight with local responsibility for revenue goals.

Local marketing, sales, and leadership should work closely together within their market, be empowered to work independently, and carry responsibility for meeting their business KPIs. If you can train both global and local teams on cultural differences and send them to the respective markets so they can get a first-hand impression and have face-time with each other, you have a good chance they will drive revenue together.

3. Review, optimize, and reward

And finally, optimize, optimize, optimize. With the rise of online marketing has come the ability to measure most of your communications activities. Review those analytics together with both local and global teams regularly, and don’t be afraid to make adjustments as needed. Learn from mistakes and celebrate wins. As one team. Globally.



Linda Tietje guest authorAbout the author: Linda Tietje is the owner and marketing consultant at LTMarketing, a Dallas, TX-based firm that supports B2B business leaders in lead-centric, data-driven marketing strategy and execution. As a German native, she is an active member of the German American Chamber of Commerce and writes and speaks regularly on the topics of marketing best practices in the B2B sector. 

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