Whether it’s in a television comedy or a real life scenario, we’ve all experienced those excruciating moments when someone tries too hard to be culturally appropriate and ends up getting it wrong. Many of us avoid attempting shows of cultural awareness for fear of the offence we have the potential to cause.
In a global marketplace, many brands (including our own) are looking to build brand awareness and customer loyalty in new markets where social mores and cultural histories are in marked contrast to their own. Yet customers in new markets can often share needs and characteristics with those in originating markets, making a global brand offering eminently possible.
For business leaders and brand managers, the difficulty is deciding when to hone in on the commonalities and when to focus on the differences. This dilemma really rattle’s around when a marketing campaign is being developed. Marketing campaigns like individuals can really get it wrong.
Someone at Cisco sent me this blog on the Forbes website in which the writer muses ruefully on the challenges facing marketers entering new international markets. In particular she comments on the pitfalls companies encounter taking their people and products to the Middle East and how – if they’re good – they gradually learn to develop marketing ideas with local cultures in mind. That’s instead of localising ideas originally created for a Western market place.
As the blog implies, we’re all too often guided by clichéd images of cultural norms and physical environments: Sand dunes, souks, camels, shisha and spices for the Middle East; fur hats, vodka, heavy snow and mournful singing for Russia. If you aren’t from one of those countries, think how frustrated you would be if a clichéd image of your cultural heritage belittled your position, intentionally or not. Think how quickly you’d switch off to a brand if it didn’t demonstrate understanding of who you really are and also aspire to be.
The interesting debate is how these clichés have come about and persist, despite the significant experience many people now have of different countries and cultures, through work, travel, entertainment, news, the internet and the media.
I think we humans feel the need to categorise and label in order to understand but the negative impact is we often fail to take our understanding further, sticking with the clichés, remaining ignorant of what else there is to know and losing out on opportunities to expand our own potential through broadened perspectives.
A friend of mine recently started to investigate London schools for her soon to be four-year-old daughter. At one she visited they referenced a cultural heritage day when every child could come into school in their national dress and talk about what their culture means to them.
As a school, it seemed, they’d turned the reported challenge of a hugely diverse set of cultural backgrounds into a major advantage by embracing and exploring the range of people they had in their school. What a privilege to experience so much of the world at such a young age by going to school each day. My belief is this experience will help eradicate some of the ignorance and fear that stems from the dominance of clumsy cultural clichés.