Years ago, while I was working for a multinational publishing company, a team from our China office came to visit. On their first day, they presented us with gifts—mostly items branded with a version of our company’s logo that had been modified for a Chinese audience. Moved by the gesture, I ran to our office’s swag closet and returned a minute later with armfuls of branded pens and paperweights, eager to return their generosity.
Faces fell. Their interpreter sighed and looked longingly out the window, perhaps in search of someone with a bit more cultural knowledge than I’d just demonstrated.
When it comes to marketing, cultural differences matter
For brands, it’s usually pretty obvious when they make a major faux pas in one of their marketing campaigns. Customers complain. Twitter explodes. News outlets start preparing stories. Sometimes politicians get involved. But while avoiding these sorts of epic marketing fails is essential, especially when communicating with a global audience, it’s important not to ignore the smaller failures that can come with cross-cultural messaging. After all, a message that doesn’t cause serious criticism but does subtly miss its target due to cultural differences between marketer and audience is still a message that hasn’t achieve its goals.
For me, my cultural error played out in real time. I could see everyone’s faces and witness the confusion and the undercurrent of disdain. It was awkward, but it showed me that I’d done something wrong and helped me adjust course for next time. (Note to self: when given gifts by Chinese visitors, accept them graciously, full stop.) But that kind of awareness and course-correction is a lot harder to carry out when the negative reactions are small and occur out of sight. To get there, brands need to ensure that they’re approaching their marketing with a global mindset.
So, what’s a global mindset?
For starters, it’s one where we don’t assume that our values, priorities, and beliefs are the same as everyone else’s. The fact is, the culture that surrounds you has an impact on who you are as a person—and almost certainly impacts the way you approach your marketing. By challenging your own assumptions and working to better understand how your customers’ cultures are likely to affect how they think and feel, you can craft more effective outreach and strengthen your brand’s relationship with its global audience.
Global marketing is still marketing. You still want to convey the value of your brand as simply and clearly as possible. But you also need to be thoughtful about the consumer needs and desires of a global audience. That’s probably going to take more curiosity, research, and consideration than understanding customers who share your culture.
If you’re ready to start working to broaden your marketing perspective, here are some things to think about:
People have to make a living everywhere. That being said, the importance of work and career aren’t necessarily the same as you see in the United States. That means that creating marketing outreach that plays off of the concept of work/life balance, for instance, might not resonate as well within a culture that already prioritizes a healthy balance.
Family’s a big deal in all cultures, but that doesn’t mean that your global audience will necessarily think about family in the same ways. Marketing messages that place a particular emphasis on hanging out with friends, for example, or that depict couples alone without any other family members could miss the mark with certain audiences. Consider taking a look at the ads and marketing messages that other brands use to speak to customers in a given region or culture to get a sense of the norms before crafting your own outreach.
Holidays and celebrations
While not every holiday is widely celebrated outside the U.S., even those that are often have a different focus than people here are used to. In the states, Christmas tends to be family-oriented, while New Year’s Eve is more of a time to party with friends. In other cultures, Christmas isn’t so overtly family-centric, but New Year’s Eve is. And in a lot of cultures, Christmas is a simple affair that involves church and a family meal, as opposed to the shopping-frenzied, gift-wrapping, stress-driven adventure it is in the States. If you’re going to play off Christmas or some other holiday in your messages to customers in countries that widely celebrate it, make sure you know what that celebration looks like first.
There’s no perfect message
It’s rare for a single message to work for every potential customer in every corner of the globe. We’re all different, both as individuals and as members of different cultures (and across age groups, for that matter). Some of these differences are pronounced, like how we value time—or value being on time. That being said, there are some universal values that are hard to go wrong with. Respect for others. Love for family and friends. A desire to be understood, to contribute to your community. When you can engage with these kinds of values in your marketing, you should.
Technology can help, too. Take advantage of the tools and tactics at your disposal. Use segmentation to send different messages to different audiences. Personalize your messages by language and location. Test your outreach and keep an eye on whether you’re seeing different results among different regions and cultural groups. And keep iterating—that’s how you make your marketing better.
You’re not going to get everything right the first time. But taking the time to think through your own cultural assumptions and to understand how culture impacts your customers in different regions and groups makes it possible to keep doing a better and better job speaking to all your customers over time.