The cultural landmines to avoid during global expansions

The pervasiveness of the internet has made it possible for any business to go global, opening up an enormous customer pool. The global e-commerce market is expected to reach 1 trillion by 2014, with the most explosive growth happening in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. The opportunity extends beyond commerce to those offering consumer tech and social media products and services; according to eMarketer, the number of social network users around the world will rise from 1.47 billion in 2012 to 1.73 billion this year, an 18 percent increase. By 2017, the global social network audience will total 2.55 billion.
 
With opportunity comes great responsibility -- global expansion can be a cultural landmine, especially when launching into markets where there isn't a baseline of familiarity. As evidence, there have been some highly publicized international marketing gaffes over the years, many involving product launches that on paper seem fine, but have deeper cultural meanings that can turn a brand from hero to zero in no time at all. Here are some examples:
 

  • Germany: When P&G launched its Clairol Mist product in Germany, it didn't realize that Mist was slang for manure. Not exactly what you want to wipe your nose with. 
  • Brazil: Revlon launched a fragrance called Charlie that smelled like Camilla. In Brazil that flower is the flower of funerals.
  • China: In Southern China, Peugeot's translated name, Biao zhi, unfortunately sounds like the regional slang for prostitute. 

How can a brand prevent making a similar misstep, especially if it doesn't have global offices or cultural attachés? For brands of all sizes, the internet is the most cost-effective and low-risk way to understand and test new markets. It is also where cultural missteps will go viral.
 
The best way to understand cultural sensitivities? Listen before you leap. Here are four steps to navigating global expansion:

Lost in translation

As we can see from the examples above, translation can lead to some unintentional yet pretty potent offenses. A basic language check is a worthwhile exercise in all markets, but slang meanings don't always show up in dictionary searches. Social media is a slang goldmine as people tend to be more informal. Many social media monitoring tools can help you listen to see how your marketing messages will resonate in your target markets, especially those that are globally localized. Had P&G done a search for how people talked about Clairol Mist, it might have rebranded.

Test, test, test

It is important to see how your marketing and product efforts will resonate with target audiences before you invest in launching. Focus groups and sample testing can be difficult to manage and expensive to execute, especially without men on the street. Again, social media analysis can come in handy when testing keywords, but search data analysis is hugely insightful as well. Take search engine optimization for example, direct translations often fail to generate the same search results. Testing what those terms bring up in your target markets is a worthwhile exercise before you invest in SEO.
 
Testing and listening can help a brand refine the marketing strategy that worked in one region but may not apply to a new one. When budget-conscious Swedish furniture provider IKEA expanded its retail operations to China in 1998, it took several years (and missteps) for the company to understand its ideal branding approach and target audience. IKEA first marketed its furniture as lower cost, which created some confusion among Chinese consumers who viewed Western products as higher-tier. The company eventually set its sights on the young middle class population, who are high earners and interested in Western products. Testing its brand identity and pricing on social media channels likely would have clued IKEA into these cultural tastes and preferences faster. Today, the company is using Chinese social media and microblogging website Sina Weibo to target urban youth -- and probably gathering valuable insights along the way.

Fish where the fish are

Once you decide to launch, the next big question is how. Selecting the appropriate channels and formats to reach global consumers is often just as important as what you are communicating. Just as companies consider external factors for advertisements (ads in public transport vs. radio in major metropolitan areas, different television commercial lengths depending on how programming runs in other countries), the same consideration should apply to content across social media channels. Let's take Apple for example -- in some locations, forums are immensely popular, yet in others they are not even on the radar.
 
In the case of IKEA in China, the company's tried and true approach of using the catalogue as a brand marketing vehicle ended up backfiring for it, as competitors in China used them as a tool for imitating the company's products and selling them at a lower price. Now the company smartly engages with its audience on a popular local social channel, which is aligned with its customer demographic.

Detect and correct

All of the research in the world can't control what people do with your information, so the ability to quickly detect and correct your mistake is crucial to avoid a mistake becoming a catastrophe. Many brands have become increasingly nimble when responding to marketing mistakes, but it is crucial to be constantly monitoring social and search channels, and have a plan in place in case something goes awry.

Patrice Francois is the co-founder and associate director of Digimind.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

 

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