Traversing through Borders: The Value of Culture in International Marketing

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The onset of globalization in recent years has certainly convinced many businesses to maximize profit by entering new markets and setting up offices in different countries. 

However, with the establishment of international business operations comes the need to attract markets that practice distinct cultures, making it vital for companies to localize their marketing strategies while delivering the same brand story internationally.

It goes without saying that conceptualizing and executing global marketing strategies is no easy feat. However, previous international marketing strategies employed by global brands and multinational corporations certainly provide insights on how others can accomplish success in their own global marketing initiatives.

Acknowledging Cultural and Linguistic Diversity

Despite the fact that modern society is more connected than ever, cultural and linguistic differences are still prevalent among different countries. In order to avoid brand blunders and marketing errors, it is necessary for marketers to consider the distinctions in different cultures. 

When both the Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo entered the Chinese market, both companies made translation errors in implementing their initial marketing campaigns. The Coca-Cola Company used the wrong Chinese characters to represent the Coca-Cola brand name phonetically, writing “ke kou ke la” which means “bite the wax tadpole.”

Similarly, in an effort to launch a marketing campaign with the main slogan “Pepsi Brings You Back to Life”, PepsiCo unfortunately translated it into Chinese as “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave”, initiating problems for the company especially since most Chinese consumers practice ancestor worship. These two companies certainly learned their lesson; they bounced back from these brand blunders by recognizing language as an important aspect in pursuing international operations.

While avoiding linguistic errors is important, it is also vital that companies show respect towards sacred cultural traditions practiced in various regions. Back in 2013, Nike unfortunately made the decision of incorporating male Samoan tattoos into its Pro Tattoo Tech Tights for women. Upon the launch of these products, Nike explicitly stated that it took inspiration from the tatau of Fiji, Samoa, and New Zealand. However, a few weeks after its launch, a Change.org petition was published to halt the manufacturing and sale of the Pro Tattoo Tech Tights, arguing that the product release was a “direct violation of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific, and is furthermore in violation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples”. Once the petition garnered almost 750 signatures on the Change.org website, the company decided to stop producing the leggings and issued an apology, recognizing the need to show reverence towards unique cultural rituals. 

Global Domination through Glocalization

The Mcdonald’s Corporation stands out as one of the largest companies that have successfully taken culture into consideration when executing their global business strategies. Over the years, the firm has seamlessly applied its “Think Global, Act Local” motto in carrying out its marketing mix.

Many aspects of its global marketing efforts are standardized across different regions as Mcdonald’s implements stringent specifications for managers, suppliers, franchisees, and stakeholders. Because of this, the company was able to set up a system that allows them to consistently deliver good quality products and display uniformed branding messages across all its establishments.

However, most of its product, pricing, and promotional strategies also incorporate glocalization approaches by adapting to the cultural differences exhibited by the company’s multiple regional markets. This is particularly evident because Mcdonald’s menus vary based on the cultural customs and laws in each location.

In India, for instance, Vegetable McNuggets and mutton-based Maharaja Macs are served over their American counterparts because of the strict rules that prevent Hindus from consuming beef. At the same time, McDonald’s also introduces unique products to regional markets and takes local preferences into consideration. In the Philippines, for instance, McDonald’s establishments offer McSpaghetti to cater to the Filipino taste.

Aside from executing product strategies specific to each regional area, the prices of food items offered by the company also differ in each country. This price disparity is evidenced by the Big Mac Index, which shows how the prices for Big Macs in each region change based on the purchasing power and spending habits of the population in that country. According to the Big Mac Index, Big Macs are sold for a much higher price in first-world countries like Switzerland compared to developing countries like South Africa. As such, because of these effective marketing efforts, McDonald’s has sustained its position as the largest fast food chain in the world.

Targeting Markets through Cultural Campaigns

While most brands aim to dominate an industry on a global scale, other brands leverage language and culture as a means to position themselves in certain markets. One brand that prides itself in its ability to adopt local dialects and cultural traditions into their marketing strategies is Nestle’s KitKat brand. In fact, despite originally being an English brand, KitKat has amassed great success in Japan.

Aside from selling unique Japanese KitKat flavors like matcha or wasabi, KitKat has also incorporated Japanese languages and practices in their marketing efforts. Since its early operations, the Japanese transliteration of the KitKat brand name has been “kitto katto.” While this seems standard, the name phonetically sounds similar to the Japanese phrase “kitto katsu,” which means “surely going to win.” Because of this coincidence, Nestle decided to leverage this unique branding opportunity in order to market their products more effectively to Japanese consumers. The company’s efforts are particularly evident in KitKat’s juken campaign, which was further discussed in a study by Philip Sugai and Adrian Sossna.

Juken is the time of the year when high school juniors take their college entrance exams. Indeed, this proves to be a stressful time for test takers. However, in order to bring value to anxious test takers and their supportive families, KitKats were marketed as omamori or good luck charms which family members and friends culturally give to students during the juken season. As part of their marketing campaign, Nestle incorporated cherry blossoms in their KitKat packaging because cherry blossoms symbolize good luck in the Japanese culture.

In 2009, the company also launched a strategic collaboration with the Japan Post Office, introducing “KitKat Mail” as a way for families and friends to send KitKat lucky charms to juken test takers. While these are only a few of the many unique KitKat marketing campaigns executed in Japan, it is no question that the KitKat brand has consistently shown the value of cultural ideas and practices in marketing, especially in improving a brand’s position in foreign markets.

Consequently, there is no doubt that culture holds an important place in international marketing strategies. Indeed, acknowledging the existence of cultural diversity in a globalized world does not only improve a company’s brand and image in foreign lands—it also provides international companies with lucrative growth opportunities. 

Visual by: Chloe Gaw

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