Understanding Cultural Differences is Vital for International Marketing


Marketing Insights for ProfessionalsThe latest thought leadership for Marketing pros

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Any company with ambitions to expand overseas needs to be aware of cultural differences and what they mean for marketing.

Article 4 Minutes
Understanding Cultural Differences is Vital for International Marketing

If you've achieved success in your home country and want to take the next step in your development as a business, you might have your eye on international markets and the potential they offer for growth.

There's no denying the opportunities on offer in emerging economies around the world. In the ecommerce sector, for example, Indonesia is currently the world's fastest-growing market, followed by Mexico, the Philippines, Colombia, and the United Arab Emirates.

To take advantage of the potential waiting to be seized in global territories, first, you need to know your target markets and what makes them unique.

Researching and understanding cultural differences is a fundamental part of this process. Having a firm grasp on the characteristics that distinguish individual countries and communities will make your marketing much more relevant and effective.

A world of difference

One of the mistakes brands need to be careful to avoid when expanding into new markets is assuming that marketing methods and strategies that have delivered results in one territory will prove just as effective in another.

Every nation and society has its own set of cultural idiosyncrasies, references, social norms, and other unique attributes, all of which feed into people's views and expectations of brands.

Some of the most in-depth research on cultural differences between nations has been done by Geert Hofstede, a social psychologist and former employee of IBM. He theorized that societies can be defined using six cultural dimensions:

  • Power distance
  • Individualism
  • Uncertainty avoidance
  • Masculinity
  • Long-term orientation
  • Indulgence vs restraint

Applied to specific countries, his work offers insights that could prove useful for marketers. It shows that China and India, for example, are more collective in their decision-making than the US, which tends to be more individualist.

This suggests brands targeting consumers in China and India could benefit from marketing to groups, rather than promoting individual needs and concerns.

In the modern world, some of the most notable variations between countries are evident in how their citizens use technology, and therefore how they access content and engage with brands.

Comparing China to the US once again, there are major differences between the tech ecosystems that help drive the world's two largest economies.

Google and Facebook are the dominant forces in search and social media in the US, but in China, these Western tech giants are pretty much non-existent. Baidu is the leading search engine for Chinese users, while WeChat dominates the social scene.

Doing in-depth research on your target markets to understand these kinds of local distinctions and preferences is essential if you want your international marketing to deliver results.

Improving your understanding

To gain a deep understanding of foreign markets required to succeed overseas, it's vital to do some targeted research that provides useful insights to inform your marketing.

One area worth looking at is the set of common values and principles that define the culture of the country you're focusing on. Politeness is a prized quality in Japan, for example, so you might want to bear this in mind when crafting messages for local consumers.

It's advisable to research the importance of trust to local audiences in global markets, to give you a better idea of how long it’ll take to earn the level of brand recognition and respect required for people to actually buy from you.

Local market research can also help you make better judgments on practical matters such as:

  • Pricing and shipping
  • Using up-to-date information on local purchasing power
  • Shopping habits
  • Consumer preferences

As far as language is concerned, it goes without saying that you need to think carefully about concepts like:

  • Phraseology
  • Sentence structure
  • The tone in your marketing

Crafting content that comes across well in a foreign tongue and has the right impact on your audience, while maintaining your core brand message and identity, can be a big challenge.

You can increase your chances of success by collaborating with relevant market experts and native speakers who can improve your marketing with local knowledge and insight. This can be one of the most effective ways to optimize your content for local audiences and avoid any awkward faux pas.

Risks and opportunities

Many companies have fallen into the trap of failing to get local insights and feedback before launching marketing campaigns in foreign countries.

Sometimes, this just causes embarrassment for the brand. One example is Swedish vacuum cleaner firm Electrolux, which failed to account for American slang when it attempted to introduce a new product to the US market with the slogan:

Nothing sucks like Electrolux.


However, there’s also a risk of poorly planned marketing causing more serious offense and lasting damage, as Dolce & Gabbana's recent experiences in China have shown.

On the other hand, there are many examples of brands that have made a huge success of their international marketing efforts and enjoyed major business growth as a result, largely thanks to well-planned strategies and clever branding.

By investing sufficient time and resources into researching, planning and managing your global marketing strategy, you can position your brand to realize the vast potential on offer in markets around the world.

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