Think Global, Act Local

Multi-Cultural Marketing and Its Intricacies

Many companies, at some point, reach that exciting threshold in their corporate history where they decide to sell their products or services in other countries. And after another few years, they might call it “going global”, for example when they sell not only to a few other countries, but quite a number of countries on different continents.

“Going global”, however, does not always mean that the company’s marketing is “going global”, too. Read about our experience in international and multi-cultural marketing. It might not prevent you from making mistakes, but it might help you become aware of the intricacies of multi-cultural marketing.

Think Global, Act Local!

This truth has been used a lot in international marketing, and there is no doubt that this is still valid. It has many meanings though. In marketing, it relates to aspects such as product positioning, corporate design, or branding. It also affects the management of your company and its organizational structure.

In marketing, the international headquarters (HQ) of a company that is going global takes a leading role. Many international companies therefore have an organizational structure with a VP of International Marketing or an International Marketing Director to whom all local Marketing Directors or Managers report (in addition to reporting directly to the CEO/Managing Director of the local subsidiary).

Global Corporate Design: Flexible Frameworks vs. Rigid Rules

Some marketing tasks must be provided by the HQ. One example is a Global Corporate Design. This is a clearly defined set of guidelines for all marketing media, such as letter heads, business cards, websites, brochures, packaging, etc. It defines brand logos, colors, fonts and standard layouts. Good global corporate designs are set up as frameworks, clearly stating what is required and where the local subsidiaries have room for local, culture-specific and market-oriented adaptations. The art of creating a well working global corporate design lies in the ability of providing flexible frameworks instead of rigid rules.

Integrate Your Local Marketeers!

It is vital to set up an international marketing team that integrates the local marketeers. So many aspects in marketing are, in fact, extremely dependent on the cultural background of the target group that it is not only painful, if local marketing experts are ignored, but it can easily burn your budget, too. Your local marketing managers can provide your HQ with first-hand market input and feedback from their cultural point of view. They should be included in the decision making processes for tasks such as product positioning, branding, or localizations.

Brand Names: Dos and Don’ts in International Marketing

If you are planning to sell your products in different countries, make sure that you actually develop a name. Don’t just “come up with something”. This sounds very basic, but many companies still end up with brand names that turn out to be a dead end when they go global. It definitely helps, if you are visionary enough to think about possible future markets when you create a brand name. Giving up a brand name later or re-branding a product can be extremely expensive, as it usually requires special marketing campaigns and many resources. A good start here, too, is integrating your local marketing experts.

You have probably heard of many examples of brand names that were total marketing disasters. In those examples, translations of brand names into other languages are often the problem. However, many of the bad examples that you can find, on the Internet and in marketing books, are actually just legends or rumors that do not become true just by retelling them.

On the other hand, brand blunders do happen. Here are two examples which are not just urban legends:
In 2001, Honda tried to introduce a car into the European market that was known as “Honda Fit” in the Asian market. The intended European name was to be “Honda Fitta”. However, in Swedish and Norwegian this referred to the female genitals, so the car was renamed “Honda Jazz” for Europe. Another car manufacturer, Mitsubishi Motors, named one of their models “Pajero”, which is a Spanish slang term for “masturbator”. They had to rename the model “Montero” in some markets.

It is therefore important to take some time for the creation of a brand name. Some companies have had good experiences working with branding or naming agencies. This can be very helpful, especially if these branding/naming agencies have native speakers research possible negative connotations of potential brand names in the individual target markets.

Product Positioning: A Matter of Culture

But not just the verbal aspects of the brand matter, visual and other aspects do, too. Your product positioning, for example, needs to reflect the culture of your target group. Some products might be easier to market in various countries, as the cultural differences concerning that specific product might be smaller than with other products. Consumer-oriented, culture-related markets, such as food or drinks, tend to be more challenging with regard to internationality. 

Yogurts, for example, need to be positioned differently in the different target markets. Countries like France, Germany or the Netherlands have a totally different yogurt-eating tradition than the United States, where eating yogurt is less common. In France, Germany and the Netherlands, yogurt, especially plain yogurt, is regarded as healthy. In the United States, yogurts are more of a snack product, and thus they are sweeter. You will find plain yogurt in bigger household packs, but not in snack-sizes. Whereas you can buy plain yogurts and unflavored yogurt drinks in Europe. This is just an example of how cultural traditions influence product positioning.

Images: Fine in One Country, But Not in Another

All marketing material which contains images or other graphics also needs to be checked for its local usability. Of course it is nice if you can use advertising, promotional material or product packaging in other countries as well. But many times this is just not so easy. Corporate pictures from US companies, for example, tend to depict groups of people from various ethnic origins in order to illustrate cultural diversity. A German, Danish or French subsidiary would have to replace those as being “too American”, especially if the company is selling products in the European market that need local service or support. What is perfectly fine in one country, is not such a good idea in another. A US sports apparel company, on the other hand, would probably use a picture of a universally recognizable American athlete, no matter his or her ethnicity, in their ads worldwide and would most likely gain similar attention in most countries (provided that headline and copy of the local ads match the picture).

Colors: Different Cultures, Different Tastes

Sometimes it is even the choice of colors that makes a huge difference between different cultures. We have seen graphics board packaging that had to have a dominant black on US retail shelves, whereas it was mainly blue in Germany and had extremely vibrant colors on the Taiwanese and Japanese market. Different colors have different meanings in different countries, and different cultures have different tastes.

As mentioned above, the HQ needs to lay down a global corporate design which is valid for all countries. The corporate colors are an undeniable part of the corporate design. But it is important to give your subsidiaries room to choose other colors, as on certain parts of your product packaging or in advertising.

Technicalities: Thinking Global in All Departments

The hardest task about “going global” is probably to get the “thinking global” in everybody’s mind, because this really means to think twice and sometimes to go way out of your way. Your product management should think about multilingual packaging for some markets. Your graphic artists could help your international approach right from the beginning by designing product packaging in a way that allows your subsidiaries to easily replace all text. Do not create graphics that contain text, which would have to be replaced for other countries. Your software developers should have future translation and localization options in mind. Different languages have different standard word lengths. German, for example, tends to be one third longer than English. Try not to limit the number of characters on buttons or in menus to short English words.

The Best Motivation: Personal Connections

Marketing on an international level and throughout various cultures can be an exciting adventure. Try to embrace the cultures you will meet, enjoy working with marketeers from all over the world and share your thoughts. Encourage personal connections and relationships on all work levels, so that everybody on your team actually lives your international approach. In the end, it’s those connections between people from different cultures understanding each other that will make international, multi-cultural marketing work.