Lost in translation: how to incorporate intelligence into target marketing

Estimated reading time
8 minutes
1st July 2020
Author: Kit McKay
Posted in: Strategy & planning

Progressive marketers must recognize that effective target marketing hinges on a deeper understanding of culture than they’re currently equipped for.

As brands move into new regions, countries, and cultures, they need to create specific messaging for targeted communities. Translation is a part of that, but effective target marketing to new cultures works towards building deep and meaningful connections at a local level.

In order for international businesses to reach a multicultural audience, marketing leaders and strategists have to make inclusive decisions, rethink personalization, and move away from conflating culture with demographics.

As things stand, when most businesses begin marketing to new regions, they often have limited familiarity with the people and cultures they’re trying to engage with. Without consulting people of that culture, brands risk exporting their domestic marketing and falling flat or creating ill-informed targeted campaigns based on stereotypes and personal beliefs.

Cross-cultural marketing mishaps

When Coca-Cola directly phonetically translated their name into Chinese, they literally translated it to “bite the wax tadpole” or “female horse stuffed with wax”, depending on the dialect. Chinese is a particularly complex language made up of tens of thousands of Chinese characters, and the phonetics and meaning of each character can vary widely between dialects. For example, Peugeot’s name in Chinese is “Biaozhi” which sounds particularly like a slang word for prostitute in areas of southern China, inspiring many dirty jokes about the brand.

“A lack of diversity on decision-making teams can often stunt a brand’s ability to craft authentic, effective messaging.”

And it can run deeper than language. When Proctor & Gamble launched a commercial in Japan, they learned that what works in the US can be considered offensive in other cultures. The ad showed a Japanese man walking into the bathroom while his wife bathed in a bathtub, a non-offensive scene in western culture. However, Japanese women were offended by the ad.

“It’s bad manners for a husband to impose on his wife’s privacy while she is bathing,” explains Mia Ishiguro on Japanese culture. “Our consumers resented the breach of good manners and overt chauvinism of the situation.”

These situations could have been easily avoided if someone familiar with the target culture had a say in the strategic process.

Diversity vs inclusivity

Proctor & Gamble’s Japanese commercial is a good example of diversity without inclusion. To appeal to a Japanese audience, they inserted Japanese actors, but by failing to include someone in the planning stage who would have recognized the cultural discrepancy, the diversity felt like a thin layer over content that was essentially still American.

According to a panel of experts brought together by WHOSAY, a lack of diversity on decision-making teams can often stunt a brand’s ability to craft authentic, effective messaging.

The panelists argue that diversity is only part of a multicultural marketing strategy. Diversity is representing various cultures in your marketing and bringing in a broader range of employees. Inclusion is the real game-changer, elevating diverse voices to decision-making roles where they can influence campaign development from the start.

Watch the full WHOSAY panel here:

Building inclusive teams

Whether it’s your own in-house team or the agencies you work with, more inclusive teams help maximize how effectively you can target cultural segments.

BMW uses Cashmere Agency for its multicultural marketing aimed at African-American, Asian, and Latino audiences in the US.

“Positive attitudes toward personalized messaging are not global”

“BMW’s U.S. customer base is as broad and diverse as the country itself,” said Kevin Williams, multicultural marketing manager of BMW of North America. “In addition to their expertise among the three largest U.S. ethnic segments, Cashmere Agency also has a unique understanding of the LGBTQ consumer segments – all of which will enable us to better serve our growing clientele.”

Proctor & Gamble has learned a lot since its failed Japanese commercial. It’s now often praised as one of the leaders in inclusive marketing, prioritizing its own in-house inclusivity and also putting pressure on its partners and agencies to build their own inclusive teams. An executive at P&G told WARC that their goal is to create messaging that understands multicultural consumers and successfully reaches at least 90% of every cultural group they target.

“Target marketing based on demographics often misses the mark.”

Allowing people who belong to your target culture to both oversee strategies and implement campaigns is essential to guarantee your multicultural marketing really represents and appeals to your target audience.

Rethinking personalization

Positive attitudes toward personalized messaging are not global. There have been various studies on international perceptions of personalized messaging. The results are clear – it’s not for everyone. While personalization and target marketing often go hand-in-hand in the US, it could be potentially damaging to apply the same tactics elsewhere. Being aware of different cultural attitudes towards personalized messaging can help you create more effective target marketing strategies.

Attitudes and preferences

A study from Periscope by McKinsey found that while 50% of US consumers feel positive towards receiving personalized messages from brands, only 37% of UK consumers and 29% of Germans feel the same way. The research also found that different kinds of personalized marketing are favored by different nationalities.

US consumers rated their favorite personalization as:

  1. Items that fit their personal style
  2. Items related to frequently purchased products
  3. Messaging tied to special occasions

German consumers, on the other hand, chose:

  1. Communications that include their name
  2. References to a recent search they made
  3. Items that fit their personal style

This suggests that there are certain conditions and environments across countries influencing perceptions of personalization.

Technological determinism

Marshall McLuhen created the concept of “technological determinism’ to suggest that certain cultural phenomena can be attributed to technological development.

A cross-cultural comparison of perceptions towards personalized email advertising between Korea and the US hypothesized that US consumers would be more receptive towards personalized email marketing because they had been exposed to this kind of marketing for longer and would, therefore, be used to seeing more personalization.

However, the study actually found that Korean consumers felt significantly more positive towards personalized email advertising than Americans. The professor who authored the study suggests that the explanation for the findings come from the exponential popularity of internet usage among Korean consumers. This rapid increase in consumer demand has dramatically increased the digital advertising budgets of Korean companies, causing them to roll out personalization in force, which has created a more interlinked and interactive form of marketing that appeals to a Korean audience. This helps dilute concerns over data privacy in Korea in a way that isn’t as effective in the US, who have been exposed to this level of technology for longer.

Collectivism vs individualism

How different cultures react to personalization may be linked to how collectivist or independent their cultural orientations are. This is determined by the extent to which the people of that culture define their self-image in terms of “I” or “we”.

A study found that consumers with collectivistic tendencies respond less favorably to a company advertising product recommendations based on their own individual preferences. On the other hand, consumers with more independent tendencies respond more positively.

“Culture is not a birthright, it’s a choice that people can opt in to”

Eddie Yoon, Director of The Cambridge Group

Consumers in countries that rank high on individualism, like the US and Australia, tend to primarily think of themselves when making purchasing decisions, so personalization is best positioned to capture their interest. Collectivist countries like Mexico and Turkey tend to make decisions in groups so value recommendations and long-term brand reputation more.

The keyword here is “tend”. While we can try and think of the qualities of countries generally, true cultural intelligence is being aware that culture goes beyond nationality and to perfect a target marketing strategy, we need to get more granular than that.

Beware demographics

Target marketing based on demographics often misses the mark. Nationality, ethnicity, age, etc. don’t truly reflect the interests and behaviors of every member of that group and this creates potential missed opportunities. This kind of cultural intelligence allows you to discover hidden markets.

For example, hip hop music is predominantly targeted to young, urban black Americans, yet 80% of this genre is consumed by suburban white men. The Korean soap opera My Love From the Star is viewed 200 times more in China than Korea. The top 10% of salsa consumers drive 50% of salsa sales, yet only 13% of these salsa superconsumers are Hispanic. In fact, white households spend more than $1 billion dollars on Hispanic food products.

Culture is not a birthright, it’s a choice that people can opt in to, argues Eddie Yoon, director of The Cambridge Group. “The currency of culture is how and where you spend your time and money. Ethnicity is not an exclusive passport that lets you in or keeps you out of a culture.

Marketers need to look beyond demographics when targeting new cultures as it’s likely the markets for the products we think of as culturally specific are understated significantly.”

Segmenting cultures based on data

We can use external data like from the studies discussed earlier to help inform our target marketing, but the truly valuable data is internal. If you can segment cultural groups based on how people react to your specific brand, you avoid making generalized guesses when choosing who to target with what messaging.

As analytics software becomes more advanced, allowing us to track people by nationality, age, and interests, we have more capabilities to measure cultural reactions before we even enter a new market. Content marketing and social media, in particular, offer indirect interactions with a wide range of people and their preferences for different content and subject areas can reveal new market opportunities and help you build targeted strategies.

As Yoon says, “The bottom line is that a demographics-based view of culture is far less profitable than a demand-based view. As you create culturally specific products, TV programs, and marketing plans, make sure you’re not leaving money on the table.”

Why cultural intelligence matters

Culture should always be considered when you create target marketing strategies. When you involve people who belong to the cultures you’re targeting, tailor personalized messaging with your target’s preferences in mind, and allow data to lead your segmentation, you’re best positioned to capture engagement and avoid offense.

Real cultural intelligence is being able to admit that you don’t always know what’s best.

This article originally appeared in The Splash: Getting Personal. Check out the rest of the issue below.

Click to read The Splash | Issue 2: Getting personal | By Turtl

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