Overseas markets represent great opportunities for brands, but also great risk. Brands that adopt a one-size-fits-all approach and fail to cater to the varying tastes and preferences of consumers in different countries could easily fall flat on their faces.
The challenges go beyond socio-cultural differences, to factors like economic, legal, political and technological differences. At home, you have an innate understanding of these things, but abroad - without sufficient research - you’re clueless.
It’s easy to make mistakes in uncharted territory, and in this article we will look at some examples of brands failing to properly research their new marketplaces. We’ll also highlight some global marketing strategies done well, alongside the steps you can take to replicate their success.
Failure to Understand Socio-Cultural Differences
Want your marketing campaign to get a thumbs up overseas? Well, be careful what you wish for - in Bangladesh and parts of the Middle East this hand gesture, widely recognised as a sign of approval, is actually used as an insult.
It serves to highlight the importance of understanding the culture and social norms of the country you are seeking to enter. Let’s take a closer look at how easy it is to get this wrong and subsequently alienate your target consumers.
Your message getting lost in translation is one of the biggest risks when taking an established brand overseas. There are many ways to get it wrong, from incorrect translations or literal translations with a different meaning, to embarrassing connotations or homophones (words that sound like another).
Some great examples of this include Kentucky Fried Chicken, whose slogan “finger licking good” was translated into Chinese as “eat your fingers off”, and pen brand Parker, which failed to hire a professional translator for a Mexican ad campaign. A crucial error in the translation turned the slogan "It won't leak in your pocket and embarrass you" to "It won't leak in your pocket and make you pregnant."
Meanwhile, brand names themselves are renowned for causing problems, such as Tiz Razors, which launched in Qatar, where “tiz” is a slang term for “buttocks” and Vicks VapoRub, which, when pronounced in German, sounds like a rude word for sexual intercourse. It was rebranded as Wicks for this market.
Religious Beliefs & Customs
With religion being such a sensitive and emotive topic, making a mistake here could represent a major blunder for a brand. It really is essential to get a handle on a population’s religious beliefs and customs in order to avoid causing offence.
Cosmetics brand Revlon failed to investigate local customs and beliefs in Brazil when it launched a perfume with the scent of camellia. The flower is strongly associated with funerals and hence Revlon had to recall the product.
Then there are the instances of brands using sacred text or iconography on their products, such as Chanel printing the Quran on dresses and Nike using traditional Samoan tatau designs on sportswear. Suffice to say, these products did not sell well in Muslim and Polynesian marketplaces.
The way your product looks or the way it is packaged and presented is another area where cross-cultural differences can arise. Colours alone can carry significance that need to be understood.
A prime example of this is when Microsoft had to recall 200,000 copies of its Windows 95 operating system after colouring in a map of India using different shades of green to represent the disputed Kashmiri territory. The difference in greens meant Kashmir was shown as non-Indian, and the product was promptly banned in India.
When UPS came to Spain it had to repaint its brown vans because they resembled the country’s hearses, and in West Germany they had to change their uniforms to green because of the association brown-coloured shirts have with the Nazi Party.
Values & Attitudes
While it might be obvious that you shouldn’t use sexualised imagery to promote a product in a conservative country, the values held by a culture can be far subtler. What seems perfectly acceptable at home might make people elsewhere feel uncomfortable.
In Japan, Proctor & Gamble had to pull a TV commercial for Camay soap that the locals considered to be in very poor taste. It showed a woman in the bath and her husband coming in and touching her. This was viewed as an invasion of the wife’s privacy and inappropriate - but in Europe, the advertisement had been popular.
Meanwhile, in neighbouring China, McDonald's caused an uproar with a commercial that showed a Chinese man kneeling before a McDonald's vendor and begging him to accept his expired discount coupon. Begging is considered a shameful act in Chinese culture.
Understanding lifestyle and cultural norms is vital in order to know how to position your product. Research may throw up some serious barriers to entry. Take for example Johnson’s Floor Wax, which wanted to crack the Japanese market, but soon discovered that the Japanese do not wear shoes indoors and therefore don’t actually want shiny, slippery floors.
Likewise, Walmart found it unable to replicate the success of it US superstores in South Korea because Koreans have a preference for buying small packages at local stores. And in India, Coca-Cola had to change its messaging after realising that fizzy drinks were typically only consumed on special occasions and with guests.
It’s also important to understand how your product is being used once it’s out there in the market, as Dutch milk powder producer Neerlandia found when it decided to change its packaging in Africa. It swapped tin boxes to foil packs and upset customers in the process. That’s because the tins were widely repurposed - becoming everything from vessels for boiling water and preparing food in, to blocks for building structures. Following a period of reduced sales, the brand reverted to the tin boxes.
International Marketing Best Practice
The potential for making faux pas when launching in new territories is bound to send a shiver down any markerter’s spine. However, there are also lots of examples that prove when global marketing campaigns are done well, they can lead to a foreign brand becoming loved and accepted.
The key is to treat each overseas market as an individual and not try to simply give them a translated version of what you’re already doing. While it might take extra resources to create a truly tailored offering, demonstrating an understanding of and a commitment to the marketplace will pay dividends.
We’ve seen what can happen if you don’t test the meaning of your brand name and slogan in your new territory. It’s important to be prepared to make changes if your brand offends or sparks derision, but also for other reasons, such as people finding it hard to pronounce or simply if it’s not memorable enough.
Another situation where you may choose to leave your brand name at home is when you’re entering a new territory through acquiring or partnering with local companies. If that brand already enjoys high recognition, it could make sense to continue using the name.
An example of this is PepsiCo’s crisp brand Walkers. In the US and Europe it’s known as Lay’s, in Australia it goes under the name Smith’s, in Mexico it’s called Sabritas and in Israel it’s Tapuchips - all retaining the names of the bought-out manufacturers.
Likewise, the same strategy is used by Unilever, whose Heartbrand family of ice creams go under a variety of different local names, ranging from Wall’s in the UK, Algida in Italy, Frigo in Spain, Good humor in the US, Ola in South Africa, Frisko in Denmark, Kibon in Brazil, Eskimo in Austria and Streets in Australia.
Localisation of Product
While you want to stay true to the essence of your product, a little localisation can greatly assist integration. By tailoring your offering to include features that are already familiar to consumers in the new market you can increase acceptance rates and win respect.
Take for example Apple in China - when they updated their GarageBand music creation software to include Chinese language support, they also added traditional Chinese instruments like the erhu and the pipa. This pleased customers and underlined China’s importance to Apple.
Meanwhile, Domino’s Pizza has adopted a strategy of tailoring toppings to the market its in. Although half the toppings are standard offerings around the world, in Asia and India they also have unique combinations featuring seafood, fish and curry. Incorporating the diet staples of these regions has helped consumers develop a taste for pizza - a foreign concept until recently.
If you rely on Google Translate to make your website accessible for foreign customers, it’s almost certain you will give them a sub-standard experience. Ideally, the shopper should feel as though they are buying from a domestic retailer, which means giving each territory its own country-specific domain as well as localising the content.
Event ticketing platform Eventbrite made the decision to do exactly this when it started to experienced strong global adoption and wanted to provide a more authentic, localised product for select markets. It worked with Transifex to integrate a localisation system, where new content is automatically detected and pushed out to translators before being published to its global sites.
The solution has made it possible for the company to support 16 overseas locales in addition to the United States. Furthermore, Eventbrite has invested in international content marketing to produce content unique to those regions. Its strategy is based on the belief that localisation is more than translating digital content; it’s making sure new users have an authentic and delightful experience when interacting with their brand.
Dual Social Channels
On social, more than anywhere, you need to be reflective of your customers in order to develop an authentic connection. After all it will be hard for them to relate to your UK-based posts about cold weather and Brexit if they’re located in Brazil. To grow an online following in your overseas markets it’s necessary to run social accounts specific to each one.
While you will want to keep you brand look and tone consistent across territories, campaigns must be adapted to each country. Done well, it helps you demonstrate cultural sensitivity and understanding of your target market, and will win you fans.
Pepsi provides a great example of well-executed international social media marketing. The brand uses a Facebook Global Page to unify its fan count but automatically direct users to the version specific to their region. It means they can also easily geotarget customers with relevant adverts while enjoying global data reporting.
Professional translation of content is good, transcreation of content is even better. This means producing different versions of content for overseas markets, taking into account cultural differences while retaining style and tone. Crucially, transcreated content should still evoke the same emotions in the target language as it does in the source language.
Apple demonstrates this beautifully in the two commercials below - the first, for the US market and the second for China. The storyline is the same: a girl takes her grandmother’s favourite song and adds her own vocals and guitar using an iPad, however the scenery and the song are different.
You will also notice that the first version of the commercial includes visual references to Christmas, but in the second those have been stripped out to be more reflective of traditional Chinese culture.
Embed in the Community
A really effective way to introduce your brand into a new marketplace is to get down there, on the ground and get involved with the local community. If these people are going to buy from you and boost your profits, consider what you can do for them in return. What could you do to really demonstrate your brand values?
Although it’s a huge corporation, Coca-Cola’s international marketing strategy includes focusing on small community programs, which helps it show that it cares about the markets it’s operating in.
In Egypt, for example, Coca-Cola has built 650 clean water installations in the rural village of Beni Suef and sponsors Ramadan meals for children across the Middle East. While in India the brand sponsors the Support My School initiative to improve facilities at local schools.
How to Optimise your International Marketing Efforts in 5 Steps
Step 1. Research - Conduct thorough market research into the culture of your new overseas location. Understand the political climate, the economy, and the issues on the public agenda. Conduct lifestyle surveys to gain insights into people’s lifestyles, as well as their hopes and fears.
Step 2. Consult - Work with a local marketing agency to conceptualise and adapt campaigns. Communicate the sentiment you wish to be translated and let them come up with the finer details to make it authentic to the region.
Step 3. Translate - Have assets professionally translated and hire local copywriters to create localised content like blogs. Appoint a native social media agency to grow your social presence abroad.
Step 4. Test - Before you invest in creative, test your ideas and design concepts with consumers. Listen carefully to their feedback and adapt for best results. Continue optimising with A/B testing to discover what really speaks to your audience.
Step 5. Monitor - Measure your brand recall and awareness levels, track your Net Promoter Score and keep tabs on overall consumer sentiment towards your brand in order to understand how your international marketing strategy is performing.
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