Marketing Across Cultures: 5 Key Things To Consider

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Written by: pTranslate Contributors


Marketing across cultures requires a very special sensitivity to the diversity of human beliefs around the world.

It’s the difference in culture that makes the human species interesting. Culture reflects the entire history of a people: what they have gone through, what they believe in, and their collective characteristic. When doing International Marketing, the marketer needs to take these vast differences into consideration.

All marketers know that that have to “relate” to their intended audience. However, when presented with an unfamiliar set of audience whose culture is completely unknown to them, they are petrified.

They don’t know how to “relate” to their audience, simply because they have never experience their culture. A native American marketer will definitely struggle to do marketing in Japan, simply because they don’t know what it’s like to be a Japanese.

Culture is not something that can be “learned” easily. It is built within the person after years of living and interacting with people from that culture.

The better the marketer understands the mind and culture of the people they’re advertising to, the better result they will yield.

Marketing is cultural, deep down. So is Marketing Translation. When handling a marketing translation project, the translator must acknowledge the fact that what they’re doing is not only about adapting one language to another. It is a highly cultural task that demands a wide range of knowledge about life in that particular region.

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Here are 5 keys things you should know when doing Marketing across culture:

1. It is important to know the Belief System of your Customer

Marketers have always told each other to “know the audience”.

But what exactly is “know the audience”?

Marketers have always been categorizing customers by demographics. We look at customers through data and statistics. We are obsessed with knowing how old they are, how much they make annually, what their job is, what they are interested in, and never really “why are they doing what they’re doing”.

Age, gender, income, area of residence, and interests, are only the upper layers of a person. We need to go deeper than that. We need to answer the question of “why are they like that”.

It’s when we need to look at the “belief system” of our customers.

We don’t make a purchase because we’re rich, in our 30s, and live in a city. We make a purchase because of what we believe in. The products we bought align with our values.

So what makes a belief system so important? Why does it have the power to dictate what we buy and how we act?

First of all, a lot of our belief framework is learned at an early age from our parents, or other adult figures.

They instill a lot of beliefs into us, without us knowing. We are conditioned to believe in X and Y, without having much control over it. We didn’t know better.

Many human beliefs are also the cumulative products of millennia of human culture. Our belief system is, to a large extent, shaped by the culture we grew up in.

Children are also strongly predisposed to believe things said by adults than going against them. From an evolutionary perspective, this promotes faster learning, resulting in greater chance of survival and stronger bond with the immediate community around us.

As we grow up, we embrace new beliefs, filter out outdated ones, and refine our system as a whole to form who we are. Our belief system is associated largely with our sense of self, which some people will defend to their death. It’s terrifying to lose one’s sense of self, so that’s why going through a “life-changing” experience is so difficult for some people. When one’s belief system shifts, the whole idea of who they are shifts as well.

marketing across cultures

So, knowing the audience is all about knowing their belief system. When doing marketing across cultures, this is even more important, because belief system varies tremendously when you’re working with customers from a region completely unknown to you.

The same demographic in 2 different cultures might not share the same behavior.

Deep down, it’s because they don’t share the same belief system. They weren’t brought up in the same way. They didn’t interact with people whose belief system are similar to yours.

If you’re focusing on the figures solely, you’re missing out on a lot of things that those figures can’t properly describe.

However, that seems to be the only way we’ve got. Numbers and data is readily tangible. It is reliable and calculable. We can’t base our decisions on something as vague and intangible as “belief system”. Nevertheless, belief system is still the driving force behind all buying decisions of customers.

So, when doing Marketing across cultures, acknowledge the fact that your customers might not share the same belief system with the demographic you’re successfully selling to in your home country. Without an understanding of the local people’s belief system, you will never be able to create a product that fits their needs, or craft a message that conveys the right value to them.

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2. Assume Nothing When Marketing Across Cultures

Why “assume nothing”?

We now know that it is important to know the belief system of your foreign customers.

And it’s a long, long journey to discover what that belief system is.

In the process, we might let our preconceived notions of their belief system get in the way.

These preconceived notions are really annoying. They distort the way we think and experience a particular culture. We are assuming that our customers behave like that, while in reality, they may behave in a completely different way.

If you look at your customers from the perspective of your own culture, you will never understand their cultural logic.

Only when you let all of your preconceived notions go and embrace the new culture as it is can you really pierce into the minds of your customers.

The best advice? Don’t assume anything too quickly. Spend time with that new culture. Experience it. Do extensive research on it. Consult native professionals and cultural experts who know the ins and outs of that culture better than you. After you have gained enough exposure to the lifestyle of the people there, you can start developing a Marketing strategy that truly “relates” to your customers’ value.

3. Develop a framework to understand your customer’s culture

There are countless dimensions to a culture.

In this particular case, we will examine the cultural aspects that shape the Global Marketing environment.

3.1. Language

The importance of language in Global Marketing can’t be overstated. Language difference, in itself, is already a huge challenge to Global Marketers. They have to take linguistic factors into consideration when designing product labels, presentations, brand and product names, tag lines, website content, and so on.

It is extremely challenging to find a brand name that can be universally translated without having to make alternations to the vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, or underlying meaning. As a result, most brands have to accept a brand name that is drastically different from the original when they expand to international markets.

In countries with rich culture and history, language gains another level of complexity. When working with companies from China, translation agency usually have to do some research to find out if the intended audience uses Simplified Chinese or Traditional Chinese. Similarly, when working on translation projects from Canada, finding out if the region speaks French or English is a must. That’s not to mention the fact that Canadian French is fairly different from the original French, and only experienced translators can recognize these subtleties.

Finally, language tends to carry within itself the history and reputation of the country it originates from. If people from a particular region dislike a country, products with labelling in the language of that disliked country can really impact its success in the region.

3.2. Customs and Taboos

All cultures have their own unique sets of customs and taboos. It is important for Marketing translators to understand these customs and taboos in the country of the source language and the country of the target language. They need to know what is acceptable and what isn’t for their customers. After that, they need to recognize those cultural nuances in the text and make changes where necessary.

For example, in Japan and China, the number “4” is considered unlucky, similar to the number “13” in many Western countries. Similarly, in Middle Eastern countries, images displaying uncovered arms and legs are considered offensive. There are also other cultural factors in the form of numbers, colors, symbols, and the translators have to change, edit, or remove those entirely, if the client allows.

3.3. Time and Punctuality

Cultures have varying notions about time and punctuality. In some, time is a limited resource that one should use and allocate wisely. In others, time is seen as an ample resource, and one should not rush, but rather go with the flow.

In cultures that have a strict view on time, people tend to use time in an unstructured way without any specific time-table. Organization skills, order, structure, and good planning is a sign of respect.

On the other hand, in cultures that don’t value punctuality high, people are considerably more relaxed and placed much higher importance on relationship building than being quick and efficient.

4. Always Be Ready To Adapt

When you’re doing Marketing across cultures, accept that you don’t know the people in the region as deeply as the people in your home country.

You have never been there. There was a lack of direct experience with the “life” of that region.

But the problem is that you don’t have the time to truly learn about the region. You have a limited time budget, and you must advertise your products and services to the people there in the most culturally relevant way possible.

So, how do you achieve this?

The answer is always be eager to learn and adapt to new things.

Test the waters. Go out there and try if something works or not.

If it doesn’t, accept it, then go back, and devise a new way that may work.

You repeat this process over and over until, one day, it works, and you start scaling it up.

We are doing it from a trial-and-error approach, and while this can be time-consuming and costly, it is the most rewarding approach, because you get to try everything.

To minimize unnecessary time and cost spending, you should:

  • Prepare a thorough plan on the tests you’re going to make
  • Keep these tests small-scale
  • Keep the risks low
  • Keep the timeframe short
  • Consult with an experienced marketer with international experience to develop your plan better
  • Figure out how to get the most feedback in the shortest period of time
  • Ensure that the feedbacks you receive are relevant and immediate

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5. Look at the Marketing problems from a fresh perspective

Remember, you’re still a foreign doing Marketing in an unfamiliar culture.

Although you should always strive to integrate the local culture into your Marketing strategies, never forget where you’re from.

Why not bring the interesting aspects of your culture into the campaign, too?

As long as the local people don’t have a negative view towards your culture, it should be fine to introduce some aspects of your culture that may captivate your customers’ interest.

Sometimes just being yourself is good enough.

Your company can bring something new and exciting to the local region. These people may have never stepped outside of their country, and your offer excites them on so many levels.

Over time, you will be able to seamlessly combine both the insider and outsider’s perspectives, forming the most comprehensive view possible.


Marketing across cultures is indeed challenging. It’s fairly complicated, and one needs a lot of time and effort to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to be a good cross-cultural Marketer. Keep in mind that Marketing is, deep down, a highly cultural task, and developing cultural intelligence is the best first step.

Do you have any experience with marketing across cultures? Feel free to share with us in the comment section below.

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