Influence of Cultural Differences in Marketing

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Diverse group of individuals leaning against wall
Diverse group of individuals leaning against wall (Image: Ammentorp Photography/iStock/Getty Images)

Culture consists of a comprehensive set of external influences that affect how people perceive and react to the world around them. If you expect to market your company's products internationally or to focus your company's efforts on diverse segments of your own society, you need an understanding of some of the complexities that culture adds to the task of appealing to consumers who see the world in a different light.

Languages, Names and Tag Lines

Translating a product name or company slogan from one language to another can produce unexpected -- and even catastrophic -- results. Ford renamed the Pinto the Corcel in Brazil to avoid the U.S. model designation's translation as a derogatory slang term for male genitals. A British manufacturer's original name for a running shoe matched the name of a poisonous gas used in Nazi death camps. The GM tag line "Body by Fisher" became "Corpse by Fisher" in Japanese. Along with linguistic differences based on the meanings of words, statements that draw on slang often fare poorly when they cross cultural lines. Sports metaphors that relate to athletic pursuits with nation-specific associations, for example, make little sense outside countries that play and promote them. Calling something a "home run" or referring to a "third strike" won't register in nations that lack an affinity for baseball.

Color in Design

Cultural color signals vary widely from nation to nation. White equates with purity in the U.S. and Australia, whereas Japan and other East Asian nations use it to signify death. Some countries consider red an unlucky color; others assign it the opposite meaning. Yellow means warmth in the U.S., but in Russia, it signals jealousy. The colors you use on the products themselves, their packaging and their marketing messages may convey completely different overtones from country to country, necessitating adjustments to accommodate specific markets. Colors also take on greater significance in societies that place a high emphasis on symbolism. Choosing and assigning colors effectively can help offset the difficulties posed by language barriers.

Numbers and Money

Numeric superstitions make specific numbers carry negative connotations, but these cultural associations don't carry global weight. In the U.S., the number 13 strikes many people as fearfully unlucky, especially in conjunction with days of the week. New York Stock Exchange trading dips on Friday the 13th, and many U.S. skyscrapers lack a 13th floor. The same fearful beliefs attach to the number four in some East Asian countries. Along with the significances of numbers, cultural influences can alter beliefs about the use of money. U.S. consumers tend to view financial-performance trends optimistically, assuming that an upward sales graph represents a continuing trend. In China, that graph would be met with skepticism about the likelihood of continued positive sales.

Surprises and Gifts

When you offer a premium, gift or discounted price as a surprise incentive, consumers in Western cultures view it as an affirmation of success. Asian cultures deprecate surprise and other signs of emotional imbalance and therefore view those incentives less favorably. Change the offer to one that you pose as a signal of good luck, however, and the offer receives favor with Asian customers. These kinds of subtle differences point to the need not only for cultural sensitivity in marketing efforts but for advice and input from people with firsthand or native experience of how well a plan will translate to another society or country.

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