International Marketing: Why Cultural Awareness Is Important

Cultural awareness among international traders, is not as new as marketing pundits believe it to be. When the East India Company came and began spice trade in India in the 17th century A.D., they gave special significance to Indian cultural values to get into the thick of things. But competition, perhaps, was not particularly stiff at that point of time, although early traders are aware of the potential it has in their trading strategy.

coca cola japan ad

Nowadays, companies that are going global with their products have to contend with local companies who are armed with vast knowledge on how the locals react to a certain cultural pulse.

They had also established their presence much earlier – they were there first. Thus, the newcomers must make sure that their products and promotional techniques are sensitive to cultural values of the people to leave a good impression of their branding.

Crossing the barriers

Cultural awareness should be applied in every aspect of marketing: in selling, label-printing, advertising and promotion of products. It covers language, the lifestyle and the behavioural patterns of the people in the country of interest. Of course the company should print in the local language, but that’s not where the language barrier ends.

Companies have to be aware of what their brand names will do to their company image on foreign shores. As an example, Koreans pronounce Hyundai as "hi-yun-day" but when it comes to producing marketing advertisements in the US, it is pronounced "Hun-day" (sounds like Sunday).


The change makes it easier for people in the US to pronounce the brand which is an important step to popularizing the car brand. At other times, the brand name means something else in the country for instance, the name for the baby food maker ‘Gerber’ is French for vomiting! Most of the time, the brand is rebranded under a different name to avoid embarassment.

For more info on different name variations in different countries including Unilever’s signature move with its Heartbrand ice cream brand (here’s a list in Wikipedia, translated) check out the answers in this forum.

It’s in the details

It’s not just the language used in the labeling or a TV commercial made to promote your company products, how the ad is created can make a lot of difference.

For instance, a car manufacturer should ensure that its ads take note of the position of the driver’s seat. An ad showing a left-handed drive vehicle would not work in a country where the driver sits on the right-hand side. The commercials should also be sensitive while using dialogues and slogans in its content.

Speaking of slogans, there are a lot of instances when translations became a source of embarassment for a company brand. An infamous (yet unconfirmed) example is at hand: ‘Come Alive with the Pepsi Generation‘ was translated to ‘Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead’ in Chinese.


With all the possibilities of mistakes that could happen, why bother translating to the local language at all? Apparently, more than 70% of consumers are more likely to buy a product that is sold in their local language; the percentage is 10% higher when it comes to buying goods online. It is essential for companies to adapt to local preferences if they want their product lines to succeed.

The Bane of Current Issues

There are also certain current issues that may force a company or organization to take a step back and re-evaluate their marketing slogans. For instance, in 2003, Hong Kong’s Tourism Board released their slogan, "Hong Kong will take your breath away" to help promote tourism via billboards and magazine ads.

hongkong will take your breath away

This unfortunately occurred right before the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak. The worst thing about the whole situation was that shortness of breath is one of the major symptoms of SARS. The tourism board quickly made the change to a new yet less-than-original "There is no place like Hong Kong", but by then some of the magazines were already making their rounds in the UK.

Product specifications

Understanding customer preferences is a tricky issue, even when it comes to the serving size of your product. This issue is dependent on local cultures and also the consumption level of consumers of the region. For example, cereal isn’t a preferred choice for breakfast in Asian countries, so there isn’t much motivation to produce it in large servings (or boxes).

It is also not a smart move to push products against the local culture, but if you are confident in your product, it is all right to be adventurous (and experiment with various serving sizes). When testing new markets with new products, there will always be the risk of suffering losses so one should always do their homework when it comes to culture-influenced preferences.

Getting the brand out there

Customers are reluctant to buy without first hearing or knowing about a new brand. When mobile phones entered India in the late 90’s, people were not willing to make outright purchases. The rich did but mostly out of curiosity that were induced by promotional adverts and the hype generated by company branding exercises. As soon as call rates subsided, a big market was created and people thronged everywhere to buy one.

It’s hard to convince one to buy, or even try a product that came out of nowhere. Customers would make the shift from hearing and knowing about a product, then recognizing the brand that produces it before trying out the product.

Helping customers make this connection with their brand and products is essential and that’s where cultural awareness comes into play. If entrepreneurs use and implement their knowledge, it would immensely help in developing a successful international marketing strategy.