Tag Archives: Cultural Fluency


Do global marketers and sales people need cultural fluency or do generic marketing and sales concepts supersede any differences in approach and attitude found in differing countries around the world?

That is a question I am asked a lot during the learning and development programmes we run for a number of large multi-national clients around the world. I suppose the answer might seem obvious – of course people need cultural fluency and knowledge – but it is a question that generates a lot of debate so I thought it would be good to put down a few of my ideas in a post.

  • Communication: if both sales and marketing are mainly concerned with getting the right message across, it seems likely that good sales and marketing people need to be alive to the significant cultural differences which underpin the way in which people communicate. Good communication style in one country will often be viewed as very poor communication style in another. Is it therefore possible to have one style of message that is used across multiple territories? It is, of course, possible but probably not optimal. It is essential to get local staff to localise the message and, when they do so, don’t tell them they’ve got it wrong (unless it is off brand etc.) If you’ve recruited good people, they know their market better than you do.
  • Presentations: there is no such thing as a good presentation; there is only a good presentation in a certain location. We have a library of in-house presentations skills courses from different companies in different countries around the world and it is amazing that in some countries people are advised to (for example) put in as much detail as possible into a presentation so as to engage an audience whereas in other countries people are advised to leave out most of the detail so as not to alienate their audience. So if you are presenting in a foreign country, how do you structure your presentation? My experience says that most people have one style of presentation and that style is used everywhere. Might it not be better to adapt your presentational style to meet the expectations of your audience? Local help will probably be needed in these situations. And remember that even if you have a global corporate approach to the way presentations are expected to be delivered, that style only works internally – clients and other external stakeholders may have other expectations.
  • Images: you definitely need cultural sensitivity around this subject. Without local knowledge, how will you know what will offend sensitivities in a particular area? Certain cultures are sensitive to such varied issues as depictions of women in certain types of clothing, a photo of three people together, the soles of shoes, names written in red and many, many more. Are your marketing people alive to these sensitivities, and are they factoring them into the work they produce?
  • Website design: this is a particularly tricky area as websites are often seen as the global ambassador of your brand and marketing message. If you are from the US go and have a look at a few Chinese websites – lots of visual noise and very little white space. If you are Chinese take a look at some Danish websites – lots of white space and sparse text. Is it enough just to have your website translated into a number of key languages or do you need to look at different designs for different audiences? Are your web team alive to these cultural nuances or are they simply designing for themselves and people like them?
  • Negotiations: where to start with this one. People in the US like to get down to business quickly; people in Japan are focused on forming a good long-term relationship before even considering talking business. Finns like to come in with what they consider a ‘fair’ price from the outset; Indians are unlikely to ever take the first price offered. People in Sweden have a lot of authority delegated to them whereas you usually need to be talking to the top guy in the Gulf. Each country has its own unspoken rules as to how a negotiation is likely to be addressed. All countries want to negotiate hard but they want to negotiate in different ways and at different timescales. Your sales guys really need to be attuned to these cultural expectations if they are to be expected to perform to the maximum in a global environment.

So when clients ask me if global marketers and sales people need cultural fluency, my answer is always an unequivocal ‘yes they do’. But they also need help along the way – you can’t expect people just to pick this stuff up by osmosis. Give them the opportunity to be trained in these areas by people who know what they are talking about. Cultural fluency is a ‘need to have’ not a ‘nice to have’.

The internet and digital marketing bring the world to our door and make access to new markets infinitely easier – or that is the current perceived wisdom. Things might not, however, be that straightforward.

The first, and pretty obvious, caveat to the notion that digital makes global access more easily attainable is that if digital makes it easier for you it also makes it easier for everyone else – including your competition. If it’s cheap and easy for you to attack a new market, logic dictates that the same must apply to everybody and the only possible result of that process is that every single market place around the world becomes ever more competitive and ‘full’. You’ll therefore need something pretty special to stand out from the crowd and that, unfortunately, is not merely a brilliant product which is appropriately priced. If people can’t find you it doesn’t matter how good your product and pricing strategy are – when you’re hidden, you’re hidden.

So if you need to be able to stand out from the crowd in multiple countries what do you need to know? To paraphrase: it’s all about the local culture, stupid! Each market place is different. The stalls are differently constructed, the colours chosen are bright or pastel according to local tastes, the products are arranged in weird and wonderful ways and the sales people use completely different patter.

Do you understand how each market works and how local consumers like to be approached? Probably not if you’ve never done business in that market before – so here are a few things you probably need to consider:

Develop cultural fluency

You are culturally biased. Sorry it’s just a fact. I am as well. Everybody is. We are all massively influenced by our own cultural background and those strong influences colour the way in which we view the world. Our cultural background dictates that we are all wearing a pair of cultural spectacles with thick lenses and those spectacles control the way in which we view the world – it gives us all a series of subconscious cultural and commercial preferences and biases. Ditch your cultural spectacles! Be objective in your assessment of other ways of doing things and approaches to business. Without cultural fluency, global marketing becomes homogenous and colourless.

Learn from the competition

Find out who is successful in your target market – both local and international competitors – and study what they are doing. Look particularly at the local competition and how they address the market and then look at the ways in which the international competitors have attempted to differentiate themselves from local players. What do the different websites look like – and don’t just dismiss the local websites as poor or amateurish because they don’t look and feel like you think they should. (That’s your cultural spectacles talking). There could be a very good local reason why a local website looks the way it does and that reason could be because the local companies really understand what their local customers want.

You only need to look at a few local China or India websites to see how different they look and feel from a more ‘usual’ western site – but often the local companies hosting those ‘amateurish’ sites are massively successful. Maybe you have something to learn from them rather than assuming they have things to learn from you. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with busy (China) or brightly coloured (India) – it’s just a matter of local preference and you need to understand what the local preference is.

Know the local rules of engagement

Different colours have different significance in different countries. Red is a lucky colour in China but is often used as the colour to alert people to danger in other countries. Semi-clad models are the norm in many western countries but taboo in many Middle Eastern markets.

The humour in your campaign that works well in one market will probably be incomprehensible in another market. (The only form of humour which is universally understood is slapstick and do you really want your brand to be dependent on the use of slapstick?)

If you are serious about penetrating a new market shouldn’t you do the requisite amount of research up-front to give yourself the best chance of success? Sure digital is global but it needs to be localised. It’s just lazy to put up a site and think it’s going to work everywhere or to assume that your product’s USP will be the same in every market.

Engage with locals – and then engage again

It sounds obvious but locals probably understand their own environment and customer base better than you do. So why not engage with them. Of course you need to question their assertions and not everything you are told will necessarily be accurate but local insight is vital and you are strongly advised to get good local advice and act on it as early in the process as possible.

Yes, digital is an enabler – but without a global mindset and an infinite amount or curiosity digital also has the danger of being a refuge for the intellectually lazy.

I really believe this statement is true if an organisation is to be able to work really effectively across the barriers of culture, language, geography and time. The problem is that people are not necessarily born with an innate understanding of how business works in areas of the globe they don’t know and maybe have never visited.

The process of changing global mindsets in any international organisation is a three step process:

  • Awareness building: You have to get people to intellectually buy-in to the fact that international cultural differences can have a very significant impact on the efficiencies of any global organisation – and therefore its profitability. Sounds like an easy step but it isn’t.
  • Knowledge development: unfortunately it isn’t enough to be aware that cultural differences exist – you then need to acquire the specific knowledge to interface effectively in lots of different markets. Awareness will get you to accept the need to be adaptive and not make assumptions but the adaptations needed when dealing in India or Brazil will be very different. This knowledge can be acquired over long periods of time and through making countless errors or the process can be speeded up through good quality training interventions.
  • Embedding insight into corporate processes: Once people have awareness and knowledge, they need to embed the lessons learned into the warp and the weft of the organisation. If you work in a global environment, every time you make a decision the impacts of that decision land differently in different places. How can you control the potential negatives of the impact of unforeseen cultural consequences and reactions? It’s not easy but it can be done.

In my experience – and I’ve worked with major organisations all over the world on these issues – this process is rarely approached with a consistent, whole organisation plan and progress towards better quality and more effective global co-operation is slow.

If you would like to discuss how Global Business Culture can help you develop greater levels of cultural awareness and fluency within your organisation, please contact me on keith@globalbusinessculture.com

I really believe this statement is true if any person is to be able to work really effectively across the barriers of culture, language, geography and time. The basic problem is that people are not born with an innate understanding of how business works in areas of the globe they don’t know and maybe have never visited – this knowledge and awareness needs to be developed.

The process of changing your mindset and developing better levels of global fluency and therefore the ability to work seamlessly across cultures is a three step process:

  • Awareness building:You have to intellectually buy-in to the fact that international cultural differences can have a very significant impact on the efficiencies of any global organisation – and therefore its profitability. You also have to accept that you have a role to play in this process. Sounds like an easy step but it isn’t.  If things go wrong when you are working cross-border it’s always partly your fault.
  • Knowledge development:unfortunately it isn’t enough to be aware that cultural differences exist – you then need to acquire the specific knowledge to interface effectively in lots of different markets. Awareness will get you to accept the need to be adaptive and not make assumptions but the adaptations needed when dealing in India or Brazil will be very different. This knowledge can be acquired over long periods of time and through making countless errors or the process can be speeded up through research and good quality training interventions.

  • Embedding insight into corporate processes:Once you have awareness and knowledge, you need to embed the lessons learned into the warp and the weft of the  way in which you do things on a daily basis. If you work in a global environment, every time you make a decision the impacts of that decision land differently in different places. How can you control the potential negatives of the impact of unforeseen cultural consequences and reactions? It’s not easy but it can be done if you have a deep understanding and the requisite level of knowledge.

In my experience – and I’ve worked with business people all over the world on these issues – few people really take the time to understand the impact of cultural differences.  People only tend to think about these things when something goes wrong and that’s usually too late.

If you would like to discuss how Global Business Culture can help you develop greater levels of cultural awareness and fluency personally or within your organisation, please contact me on keith@globalbusinessculture.com

Global Business Culture works with a large number of major global corporations and as they become more and more engaged in business activities outside their home bases in North America and Western Europe, they seem to be asking increasingly difficult questions about the difference between cultural sensitivity and ethical correctness. I suppose the question boils down to a simple one – should we always play by the rules of the country we find ourselves operating in or should we always apply the rules that work in our home country? Those of a culturally understanding nature, as well as those who place the commercial imperative before all else tend to argue that ‘when in Rome do as the Romans.’ But is it really that simple? Should local norms always trump home country beliefs?

One of my North American clients placed a female employee as the project lead on a project with a certain Asian client. They received an email from the client in Asia saying they would prefer a man as the project lead. What should the North American company do? Should they acquiesce to the demands of the client even though that would contradict both the law in their own country and their strong corporate policy of being a gender blind employer? When I pose this question to clients around the world, responses vary enormously and not just, as might be expected, along gender lines. I’ve had female managers in the US saying that the client is always right but then being argued with by male colleagues who say that corporate policies should be adhered to regardless of the commercial consequences.

I spend a lot of time explaining the impact of differing attitudes to meetings, decision-making styles etc. on global business and my usual advice is to adapt to the expectations of the client as this can help you meet your goals on time and on budget. Nobody objects to the idea of adapting to a different meeting style – but condoning gender bias or bribery is a whole different ball game!

These issues are really complex and there is no simple answer to them. However, I strongly believe that a global company needs to address these difficulties rather than sweep them under the carpet. Organisations need a clear policy on all of these issues which is then effectively communicated and they also need to be strong enough to apply that policy in all situations – no matter how commercially uncomfortable that might be. It just not fair to say ‘we don’t pay bribes’ but then to punish a sales guy for losing a contract because they were competing with someone who did. It sounds bizarre but it happens.

If you’d like to discuss how increased cultural fluency can help you develop and implement effect global compliance policies, please contact me at keith@globalbusinessculture.com