Cultural Differences
Brand MarketingMarch 4, 2021

9 Cultural Differences to Remember For Your Next Brand Campaign

March 4, 2021
Maddie Duke
Maddie Duke
Freelance Marketer

Culture can have a massive impact on your brand campaign. Without careful consideration of cultural differences between markets and demographic groups, you can easily make a costly mistake. Even some of the world’s biggest brands can fumble. Nike once had to recall a line of footwear after people noticed that the flame detail on the back of the shoes looked like the word “Allah” in Arabic.

While global borders may have blurred thanks to increased internet use and the advancement of technology, it is a big mistake to bunch different countries and cultures into a “global market”. The importance of understanding different cultures is vital to the success of your business and keeping your brand identity intact. You don’t want to mess that up with one bad brand campaign.

Avoid any damage to your brand by ensuring your global brand campaigns and communications are localized and screened for any possible cultural differences. The advice presented in this article will help you out.

What is Cultural Sensitivity and Why Is It Important in branding?

Before you can fully understand the importance of the advice in this article, you first need to understand what cultural sensitivity is and why it is important.

Cultural sensitivity is understanding and adapting to cultural similarities and differences that exist between people. In branding, it means applying this understanding across the markets you operate in or plan to operate in.

Cultural sensitivity is also important when considering differences between subgroups of people within broader cultures, or segmented audiences within broader markets. Cultural differences between groups with shared identities based on factors like migration, sexuality, gender, or race need to be considered just as thoroughly.

Through a culturally sensitive brand campaign, you can demonstrate to your target audiences that your company appreciates their unique values. This will enable you to gain their respect and increase your ability to connect and resonate with them. Failing to consider these differences can cause lasting offense, damaging your brand image, and ultimately hurting sales.

Back in 2011, Puma really put their foot in it when they released a special anniversary edition sneaker in the color of the United Arab Emirates flag. The design caused serious resentment among the public, who deemed it disrespectful. Why? Because in Middle Eastern cultures, showing the bottom of your feet is considered very rude. Wrapping the national flag around your feet just adds insult to injury.

Puma issued an apology and recalled the sneakers, losing sales and rendering the whole campaign a waste of money. No doubt the incident is still remembered by some, turning loyal customers away for good.

When choosing not to practice cultural sensitivity, you risk an unsuccessful brand campaign. At worst, you could find yourself not just alienating new audiences, but causing significant offense or implicitly encouraging offensive behavior with a message that’s memorable for all of the wrong reasons.

While pushing boundaries can be part of your brand’s key characteristics - and can even serve you well - you need to have a strong social and ethical responsibility to keep the masses happy. Do your homework to find out the finer nuances of what’s considered funny, progressive, or risque within the target culture, and draw the line appropriately. The following tips are a good starting point.

9 Tips For Considering Cultural Differences in Your Next Brand Campaign

Localize language

Language is a major factor when it comes to considering cultural differences. Your catchphrase, slogan, or even the brand name itself, might be offensive or off-putting to your target audience. Before launching in a local language, you need to thoroughly understand how the words you use will be perceived to ensure it’s successful in a new market.

Even within the same language, the meanings and implications of specific words and phrases can differ greatly. Take the word “thick” for example. Thick means curvy and full-bodied in the US, while in the UK and Australia, implies unintelligent or dim-witted. Think twice before you use it in your brand campaign!

Failing to localize language can have lasting effects on the health of your brand. One notable example was when General Motors advertized its ‘Nova’ model car. Nova translates to “it won’t go” in South American local languages. Not something you want in a car!

One small oversight could cost your company enormously in reputation and lost sales, so pay attention to language, invest in localization services, and test your brand campaigns before you launch them.

Check your hand gestures

Brand mascots, such as Ronald McDonald or the Michelin Man, can have a strong effect on brand awareness and sales by driving trust and powerfully conveying meaning, emotions, and associations. Utilizing a human, animal, or anamorphic character in the visual elements of your brand campaign can be a fantastic way to establish brand familiarity and to convey personality and meaning.

Keep an eye on your mascot's signature hand gesture. You may think these gestures have universally understood meanings, but they can translate to different things depending on the country. For instance, although it’s widely recognized as a sign of approval or agreement in English-speaking countries, in Bangladesh, a “thumbs up” gesture is used as an insult.

Go a step further and check for any hand gestures that have acquired new meaning within your own culture. Take the “okay” hand gesture, in which the thumb and index finger touch while the other fingers of the hand are held outstretched. It may seem fairly innocuous in most contexts, however, in the past few years, it has become associated with white supremacist groups and could now be perceived as extremely offensive.

Mind your body movements

Being mindful of body language is just as important as hand gestures. Certain movements can become so ingrained in how we conduct ourselves and convey meaning that they feel innate, so much so that it can be easy to forget how vastly they can differ.

Launching a TV campaign in Indonesia? Make sure the actors don’t use their left hand. The left hand is used to clean yourself in the bathroom. Locals will look upon your brand with disgust.

Simple things like proximity, eye contact, and posture can also have different implications. Indicating “yes” by nodding your head up and down may seem universal, but in Greece, tilting the head to the left and right means “yes”, while tilting the head up and back means “no”. This might seem like an innocent enough mistake but who knows the implications it can have in the wrong context.

While many of these differences are more apparent in face-to-face interactions, it pays to consider how the characters in your brand campaign are positioned and how they relate to one another or the viewer.

Use emojis with care

Emojis may seem like the lingua franca of today. They can be used to express feelings and convey meaning in place of full words and sentences. Pretty universal, right? Wrong. When creating content with emojis for a global audience, you may be surprised by some of the differences.

Photo by Domingo Alvarez E on Unsplash

Case one: be careful with the applause emoji! It is used in the West to offer praise or congratulations, but in China, it is the symbol for making love. You don’t want your brand message confused.

Look into emoji use among subcultures in your existing markets too, to avoid looking the fool. In the absence of specific images, people tend to get creative and make do with the emojis they do have. This can give some otherwise innocent emojis a whole new meaning. Hint: Beware the double meaning of certain fruits and vegetables.

Check your use of color

Color is a vital component to branding, with the potential to increase brand recognition by up to 80 percent, influence mood, evoke feelings, and communicate the qualities and attributes of your brand identity. So important is color, that many brands trademark their iconic brand colors to protect this element of their brand.

But color isn’t as innocent as it seems.

Let’s take the color red as an example of how color psychology can differ between cultures. In many Western cultures, red symbolizes excitement, royalty, and passion. But it also represents danger, bloodshed, and has many negative connotations, especially when used in language. Think: what do the terms “I see red”, “caught red-handed”, “in the red”, or “red flag” say to you?

Just the sight of the color red can also invite trouble. In China, red symbolizes good luck, prosperity, and happiness. Red is used for big celebrations, red envelopes are used for giving money as a gift, and Chinese brides usually wear red at their weddings. In East Asian stock markets, red signifies a rise in stock prices.

When adapting your brand campaign for a new market, consider how your brand colors will affect how your brand is perceived and consider whether you need to modify it.

Keep religion in mind

Religion plays an enormous role in framing people’s beliefs and values. Whether you’re launching a brand campaign, religion should be a key consideration.

Highly religious cultures tend to be prudent about certain issues such as sex, gender, and marriage, influencing how various products and brand campaigns are perceived. Religion is a critical consideration to understand before launching in new markets and cultures. For example, since the Philippines is highly Catholic, there's a lot of prudence involved when launching campaigns with Western ideas (e.g. sex education, dating, same-sex marriage, and divorce).

Don’t be sexist

While historically, brands have been able to get away with some problematic representations of women and their roles in society, the world is changing, and most cultures have progressed beyond this. Even if you plan to launch in a culture where women are still struggling to fight for equal treatment, it’s not wise to capitalize on harmful messaging that enables poor treatment or perpetuates the struggle.

Sexist brand campaigns, ideologies, or slogans don’t sit well with most countries across the globe. Even if something flies within one culture, you will likely experience a backlash in other markets. Think of Co-op’s sexist chocolate egg — and from a company that touts gender equality as a principle, no less.

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Consider whether “sex sells”

Using the human body to sell is arguably a form of sexism, and is a message that will likely ruffle a few feathers among highly religious cultures. Take the rather suggestive brand campaign in Belarus, where a model posed with a bottle of Slavnaya water being squirted over her face. It was considered vulgar and caused deep offense.

Using sex and nudity in branding is something that many brands do, and is largely accepted in many cultures. However, some countries are much more strict around sex and censorship. Do your research to avoid negative resonance and pushback.

Don’t be racist

We’d like to say this last piece of advice goes without saying, but unfortunately, there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. Many brands are still perpetuating harmful racial stereotypes and failing to understand that there is nothing funny or clever about racism of any kind.

It’s your ethical responsibility to interrogate whether the message your brand puts out into the world is racist. Go beyond whether you personally find it racist, as you may not be as sensitive to the nuances of microaggressions and other less overt but still harmful forms of racism.

In 2021, it could even be argued that it’s a brand’s responsibility to take a step further and educate their audience. Some brands, such as Nike), have done well to use their platforms to spread positive messages, while others have experienced backlash by showing hypocrisy and inconsistency between their words and their actions. And if you want an example of who to avoid, this of the Pepsi and Kendall Jenner controversy.

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Recovering From Cultural Blunders

If you’ve already had a few missteps in different markets, consider undertaking a brand audit to gain valuable insights and make data-driven branding decisions moving forward. Small errors can be costly but can often be overcome.

However, if your company makes a major misjudgment, or allows an offensive brand campaign to slip through sign-off and make it to launch, it’s important to react quickly and appropriately. Listen to those that speak out, apologize, and take ownership of the mistake. Don’t shrug it off, don’t release a defensive statement. If it’s caused offense, pull the campaign materials and messaging, and take the opportunity to demonstrate that you’ve learned from your error.

By doing so, not only will you minimize the damage to your brand and reputation, you’ll minimize the damage caused to consumers. If you’ve offended even a small population of people, there’s every chance you’ve made someone within your own company uncomfortable. Now is the time to exercise your cultural sensitivity and understand the appropriate apology for this particular market or group.

Being transparent, authentic, and even vulnerable, is increasingly important for brands today.

Final Thoughts

For a brand to prevail in today’s world, it is extremely critical that they are sensitive to varying cultural differences. When launching a brand campaign in any market, whether you already have a presence there or not, you must double and triple-check that you are not causing offense to anyone.

You can generate a big impact for your brand and connect with new audiences without being disrespectful or offensive. It’s simply a matter of conducting research and learning about your audience’s cultural values and taboo topics. Don’t be the brand everybody is talking about for the wrong reasons.

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