Success translates well into narrative. So does failure. Who hasn’t heard those wonderful stories of marketing campaigns gone astray when introduced into a global setting? Remember when Puffs tissue started marketing their tissues in Germany and it didn’t do so well because “Puff” means “brothel” in German? Or when Bacardi launched a fruit drink named Pavian in France it translated into slang as “chick,” but when they promoted it in Germany the same word meant “Baboon?”
We’ve all heard of these mistakes and we all get a chuckle, but the business ramifications of not doing your cultural homework are tremendous. And this goes well beyond something as superficial as a mistranslation. We are prone to imposing our way of seeing the world on others, but what we may see in the developed world as universal may be significantly different in developing countries. Culture shapes how we use, interpret and shop for goods and what US shoppers may see as simply, say, buying chicken for dinner may mean much more in another part of the world. In other words, retailers and manufacturers need to understand what matters and why it matters according to different cultural perceptions.
Returning to our example of purchasing chicken at the grocery in the US, take concepts of cleanliness and food safety. As a population that has had easy access to meat for longer than most of us can remember, our concerns revolve around the promotion of “health” as a means of reducing fat in the diet. Increasingly, we make decisions based on the sanitary conditions of the farms where chickens are raised and the ethical treatment of the animals. We increasingly associate “healthy” with being “green” (another wonderfully loaded and vague word). That has led to a push for reduced packaging as proof of sustainability and healthy living.
Now, take China. In a place where access to meat was – until fairly recently – limited, chicken is associated with status and upward mobility. In the past, the source of the meat itself was usually suspect because you often purchased it in less than uniform locations. Consequently, what we would see as excessive packaging is understood differently – the factory setting implies progress, wealth and modernity, which in turn imply good “health.” Meat is something you want to show off to your friends and family because it is associated with status, which is associated with good health. Add to that the fact that people in much of China (as well as East Asia and the Middle East) have traditionally seen the chicken as something other than a pure commodity. Indeed, there are many poems written about chickens. The result is that if you position chicken in the developing world as you might in the US, as a low-fat, easy to prepare alternative source of protein, it won’t correspond to the local worldview and your brand won’t gain traction. You will invest a lot of money and may get very little in return. And China is only one example; expand this to the BRIC nations or the Middle East.
So what does it mean for marketing your brand in the developing world (in fact, what does it mean for marketing your brand in Alabama vs. LA)? It means that before you decide to launch or even reposition a brand or product around the world you need to spend some time digging and learning why people live the way they do and how your brand can fit into that complex system of practices and beliefs. It isn’t enough to make sure the language is translated correctly or the color pallet makes sense. You have to come to understand the population the way you understand your neighbor. That’s where you find new opportunities and that’s where you find growth, both in terms of brand equity and the bottom line.