How to overcome intercultural barriers in marketing

Last week I was lucky enough to attend CIM’s latest ‘Soft Skills for Hard Results’ event — a look at intercultural leadership skills with Marina Ibrahim, an intercultural consultant and CIM course director.

Examples abound of international marketing campaigns gone wrong. This is often down to a simple lack of local cultural understanding. The HSBC video ad below perfectly demonstrates how an action as simple as finishing your meal can mean one thing in one culture, and something entirely different in another.

But a lack of understanding of local culture is just one challenge that marketers face when launching products or services into new international markets. Others include:

  • Language barriers
  • Logistical difficulties, including time zones
  • Differences in social and business etiquette
  • The need to build brand trust in a new market
  • Overcoming the restrictions of your own culture, which can often hold you back from understanding others

So how can marketers overcome these challenges, and launch successful intercultural marketing campaigns? Here are some of Marina’s tips.

Beware the nuances of language

One of her first tips was that Google Translate is not your friend! When launching into new markets, having a highly localised presence is vital to success, so you can’t afford to rely on any quick fixes.

Even when using the same language, beware of recycling copy or headlines for other markets. For instance, your ad copy for the US will probably need to be slightly different from that used in the UK or Australia. Similarly, don’t assume that the same platforms enjoy the same level of popularity in every market. For example, Google is not the be-all and end-all in every country; Yahoo and Bing are relatively popular in the US too.

Take time to understand your customer in every market

It’s really worth understanding your customer in detail in every market. This knowledge and insight can then be used to develop content specifically for your prospects and clients in every market, rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach.

McDonald’s is one of the best intercultural companies out there, tailoring its offering expertly to each target market. Did you know, for example, that in Egypt eating out at McDonald’s is considered something of a luxury, as it’s a treat to dine out? So the brand uses completely different positioning and messaging there from in the UK, where it’s considered a fast food restaurant.

The power of perception

Marina also talked us through lots of examples that demonstrated the power of perception, in order to reinforce the importance of seeing other people’s points of view — in life in general but also in business.

Indeed, we only see what we know, and everything we see is filtered through our own knowledge and experience. So when expanding into new markets, we should constantly be asking ourselves if our way is the only way of seeing things.

Marketers should also be aware of the ‘invisible’ elements of culture that can’t immediately be seen. Such cultural dimensions include the importance a culture places on time or personal space, how they communicate, how risk-averse they are as a whole, and so on.

Such differences mean that taking a one-size-fits-all approach should be avoided at all costs. Instead, think about how your organisation and your product or service is relevant to each new target audience — the golden circle model below is a good place to start. Why should your target audience care about your organisation?