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We make our own website, perhaps an e-commerce site, translate it into several languages and that’s it! Or do we?

With the advent of e-commerce, the world has become our target market. This has opened up unprecedented opportunities for everyone globally. However, in our enthusiasm to sell worldwide, we often overlook a crucial element: cross-cultural marketing.

A new scenario introduces a new level of complexity and success requires a thorough understanding of the challenges and opportunities associated with cross-cultural marketing. 

A world of opportunities

The web has transformed the way we do business, allowing us to reach customers in every corner of the globe. This phenomenon is intrinsically linked to the concept of globalisation, as geographical barriers are broken down and business transactions can take place without physical borders.

It is possible to visit a website from every corner of the world and, indeed, we often even make large investments to get a good organic ranking on international SERPs or to spread our brand beyond national borders. But are we sure that once we have our ‘spotlight’ on a foreign market, we will be able to use communication that is truly effective in that specific market?

The Fallacy of Universal Communication

Despite the ease with which our communication can reach almost anywhere in the world, the idea that it can be the same everywhere, in Italy as in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, or the Philippines, is wrong. Different countries, different cultures, interpret signals and symbols differently, each presenting its own uniqueness. It thus becomes essential to adapt the communication strategy to the target audience.

Cultures are complex, and so are the forms of communication that each one uses internally. Translating is not enough!

A useful lens to explore this intricate web of cultural meanings is Geert Hofstede’s ‘onion theory’.

Teoria della Cipolla di Hofstede

Hofstede argues that, like the onion, a cultural system is made up of layers; some more obvious, like the most superficial layers of the plant, others, the innermost ones, hidden from summary analysis.

The outermost layer of our onion is formed by Symbols: words, gestures, images, objects… sounds simple doesn’t it? No, it is not simple. Think that even a theoretically universal communication system, such as emoji, or gestures, falls victim to this complexity.

smile angelo

Did you know that even a simple emoji like this can be interpreted as a symbol of innocence or a symbol of death, depending on the reader?

Or think of symbols like this one, which in the wake of the Anglo-Saxons we now commonly use to ‘give the OK’, i.e. to confirm or communicate that there is no problem. 

ok simbolo mano

Sounds like a harmless gesture, doesn’t it? It is not, because while in the West it is a positive, confirming symbol, as we have said, in some South American countries it stands for the number ZERO.

But it can be worse. Imagine using on your landing page where you present a product or service, a picture of a boy making the gesture we have just seen. For you, the boy is communicating that thanks to your product everything is now OK! If, however, you should think of using the same page for a campaign aimed at Brazil, be aware that you could end up with a large group of Brazilian visitors insulted by a gesture whose meaning is… definitely not universally shared.

Symbols also include words and gestures, in short, the whole complex of verbal and corporal expressions. It would be a very long and complex list to make, but it is good to remember that they are all ‘visible manifestations of communication’ that we must pay attention to when we need to translate them for a culture other than our own.

Another area that can gather considerable differences from one country to another is that of colours. Before choosing the colour red, for example, you should know that it symbolises love and passion in many countries of the world, but not in Japan, because the colour of love is green, while red, as in all the rest of the Oriental countries, but also in Denmark and Argentina, retains a positive meaning, but linked rather to luck. In China, for example, it is the colour of wedding dresses!

Here… be careful about using it in Africa, though, because for some African cultures it is associated with blood, and is the colour of mourning.

Going deeper into our onion we find the Heroes: people who really existed, who became protagonists of legendary deeds, or even fictional characters, belonging to myths or legends, who over time have become the symbol of specific ideals, aspirations, fears.

Further down, towards the centre, we find Rituals, which are often intertwined with folklore, tradition, religion and local customs. 

Speaking of Symbols, Heroes and Rituals, we have spoken of Practices. But there is still a layer, the middle one, the layer of Values! The set of values of a people, of an ethnic group, of a culture, represents its heart, the centre of everything. These are often customs, behaviours, beliefs and visions of themselves and of the world that the members of a culture have introjected to the point of having lost consciousness of them. It is about those teachings that are implicitly or explicitly imparted from an early age, first by the family and then by society.

Why is it important?

Well I think it’s pretty clear isn’t it? Because introducing this kind of topic shakes the ENTIRE theory of marketing that you may have known so far from its foundations. Even a simple competitor analysis, from this new perspective, has spin-offs we would not have imagined.

Let’s give it a try. Think of a simple competitor analysis, OK? We usually have no difficulty answering the question: who is our competitor?

automobile o bicicletta

If we sell cars in Italy, a bicycle manufacturer is most likely not our competitor. Yet just over a thousand kilometres further north, in countries like Denmark, a bicycle manufacturer would be a competitor, because cars and bicycles, in their culture, are almost interchangeable products.

In Italy, there is no widespread habit of cycling to work, except in some areas such as Emilia, and two-wheelers are mainly considered a means of walking or sporting activity. In northern Europe things change, so how can our marketing not change?

dessert

Let’s take another example: do you think a slice of cake can replace a cappuccino? Probably, like most Italians, you may have thought no, but in many countries, cappuccino is a dessert! They consume it at the end of a meal just as here in Italy we consume a tiramisu, a panna cotta or a slice of cake.

How can we not take this into account when we want to open our own food delivery service in South Africa or the United States?

The 5 Dimensions of Hofstede: A Framework for Understanding Culture

To successfully navigate the complex terrain of cross-cultural marketing, it is crucial to take a structured approach. Hofstede’s cultural dimensions offer a useful framework for understanding the differences between cultures, including Power Distance, Individualism vs. Collectivism, Masculinity vs. Femininity, Uncertainty Avoidance, Long Term Orientation vs. Short Term Normative Orientation. Here is a link for more… and maybe I will also write an article about it in a while.

What is at Risk?

One risks huge, gargantuan m…iscommunication figures; communication problems that can also become costly to manage in terms of branding. Once the mumbo jumbo is made, once social media has moved on, it becomes difficult, and also very expensive, to remedy. You know when we talk about ‘crisis management’? That’s it… let’s talk about that stuff.

Everyone is wrong, let’s be clear, even the big guys.

Dove knows this well with its ‘campaign for real beauty’.

dove-backlash
Dove bottiglie campagna real beauty

Pepsi knows this well, with its Live for Now campaign

Pepsi Jenner

Dolce&Gabbana know it well after the ‘Chopstick’ campaign

Dolce e Gabbana - chopstick

But we will perhaps talk about these case studies in a future post on this blog.

What do we take home with us?

You should take home a concept that is as simple as it is important: think before you act!

What is the right solution for you? Do you want to realise a ‘universally weak’ communication, which plays it safe at the risk of being too generic and ‘bland’? Do you want to implement as many communication and marketing strategies as there are cultural targets, as McDonald’s does, for example, which we will perhaps discuss in another article? Or do you prefer to remain ‘local’, cultivating your own garden with love and care, without trespassing on your neighbour’s?

These are all valid options. The important thing is not to take anything for granted, and to avoid going overboard. The answer depends on an accurate assessment of market needs, cultural preferences and business objectives.

In a world where the line between digital transactions and geographical barriers has become blurred, cross-cultural marketing becomes a key lever for successful global communication. Understanding the subtle cultural nuances, utilising the appropriate frameworks, and taking a strategic approach to communication are key activities to overcome the challenges and capitalise on the opportunities presented by such a diverse digital landscape.

Only by embracing cultural diversity can online communication truly thrive on a global scale.