Tag Archives: Digital


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.