Want to make your client’s campaign an epic fail?

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Guest Post by: Vera L. Dordick, Principal – Tangible Development LLC


Of course you don’t.


Helping a client take a brand or product to the global market is truly exciting. But just because your PR strategy, marketing material or advertising campaign is a success here in the United States, it doesn’t mean the same thing will play well in another culture. 


No matter what you’re moving into an international market, chances are you will have to make some changes. Your corporate brochure may feature a smiling client in a business meeting, but if she’s wearing a sleeveless dress or sitting too closely to a male counterpart, it’s not appropriate for a Middle Eastern market. Going to an Asian country with a campaign that focuses on individuality?  Odds are it’ll be a bust.


Culturally sensitive communication involves presenting your brand and information in a different way. How you modify it depends upon a country’s cultural expectations with regard to factors like societal hierarchy and the acceptable level of individualism. Motivations for action – including in marketing, advertising and communications – differ across the globe.


We don’t have to look too far afield for a vivid lesson in how a successful American advertising campaign can bomb in a different cultural context. Take the ubiquitous “Got Milk?” campaign. It turns out that while this marketing campaign is successful among most Americans, it is not effective with Latino consumers. The San Francisco Chronicle featured a story about the problems the California Milk Processor Board would have had with the campaign had they not caught the issue early in the game.


Let’s start with the tagline’s basic English-Spanish translation: “Are you lactating?” Not what the milk industry was aiming for, is it?  Word-for-word translation doesn’t generally work. Just ask Pepsi about their “Come alive with Pepsi!” campaign which, when translated into Chinese, means “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead!” Or the Perdue Chicken slogan “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken” that translates into “It takes a hard man to make a chicken aroused” and “It takes a virile man to make a chicken pregnant” in Mexico. We might chuckle, but I’m pretty sure Perdue’s marketing staff didn’t.


Next, the idea of a mother running out of milk is offensive in Latino culture.  Mexico and many other Latin cultures are highly collectivist. This means they value the welfare of the group – whether it’s the family, the community, or the company – above that of the individual. For Latinos, running out of milk is serious and calls into question a mother’s household skill and parenting ability.  Moreover, the campaign wasn’t aimed at Latino mothers and grandmothers, who are traditionally the milk buyers.


I think the flip side of this equation is even more illustrative of how you cannot automatically transfer campaigns across cultures. The successful substitute campaign for Latino consumers in California is “Family, Love and Milk” (“Familia, Amor y Leche”). Most non-Latino Americans won’t be likely to find this as compelling or interesting as “Got Milk?”


My main point here is that communicators ignore cultural nuances and sensitivities at their own peril. This also holds true for communicating with international communities here in the United States. Taking a brand to an international market (or market segment) requires education, modification, and often collaboration with foreign partners to make the effort a success.

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