Culture, Language, Ethnicity, Message – What is Your Brand Saying to Your Customers?

Most people tend to surround themselves with others who are similar in culture, traditions, perceptions, language and values. But what a trap that can be for us when we go to market a product or service. That’s when it becomes not about what we think or our views as much as how the people who we want to buy from us perceive our offerings. And those differences in perception can be the differences between men and women; Northeasterners and Southern Californians; African-Americans and Caucasions; Presbyterians and Jews; or citizens of the US and Mexico. 

Diversity in American society is what makes us interesting, rich in cultures and difficult all at the same time. As a Swede raised in Wisconsin I might potentially believe everyone wants to dine on brats and beer. A mother of five sees no need for small-size containers and can’t imagine not buying all of her food at Costco rather than an expensive supermarket. An athletic vegan is likely going to find an ad for an In-N-Out double-double cheeseburger disgusting. 

Effective marketing should make each person feel that your message relates to them if they are in a position to buy your product. Here are a few examples of major companies not taking culture into account with their marketing:

  • Chevrolet in the 1970’s decided that the Chevy Nova was a great car to sell in Mexico.  What they didn’t take into account was that translated, Nova becomes “no va,” which means it’s a car that doesn’t go.
  • McDonald’s spent thousands on a TV ad to target the Chinese consumer. The ad showed a Chinese man kneeling before a McDonald’s worker and begging him to accept his expired discount coupon. The ad caused uproar over the fact that begging is considered a shameful act in Chinese culture.
  • Gerber started selling baby food in Africa, using packaging with a picture of a baby like in the US. Sales flopped because in Africa consumers want to see pictures of the product on their labels.
  • A golf ball manufacturer packaged golf balls in packs of four for sale in Japan. The number 4 is equivalent to the number 13 because it sounds like the word “death”. 

Brand sensitivity, or lack of it, can be the difference between success and failure with many consumers. Before introducing a brand to any market, the most important thing is not developing something bold and beautiful that will attract attention. Rather, get to know the hot buttons and sore points for your potential customers.  If you’re not talking to them in the right “language” that relates to their culture, you’re not doing your job as a marketer.


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