Cross-Cultural Marketing Gone Wrong. And the Lessons We Can Learn

The importance of culture in international marketing is nothing new – there is no international business or marketing course that does not teach you to learn about the local ways of doing. Yet, companies keep making cultural mistakes. I learned this while going through a long list of examples during my university studies but also experienced it first-hand during my 5 years of cross-cultural work in sales and marketing. Being personally involved in cultural misunderstandings in the business environment, I realized how important it is to TRULY comprehend the role culture plays in marketing as well as in one’s professional and personal relationships. Cultural awareness allows you to communicate more clearly, build stronger relationships and create a sense of trust, belonging and identification. A lack of cultural awareness, on the other hand, increases the risk of making offensive mistakes that can damage your reputation and customer relationship.

Let us look at some of the mistakes which companies have made in the past and learn how we can avoid them so we can save our money and reputation.


International Marketing Blunders


Lost in translation

Language mistakes happen so often that there is even a term for them: lost in translation. There is a whole range of mistakes you can make. You can decide to NOT translate at all and have that foreign word sound like something different in the local language. You can use Google Translate, and we all know the result is not always so good. Or you can use a word properly translated that locals use to say something different from the literal meaning. Let me give you a couple of examples.

Schweppes Tonic Water failed to translate in Italy, where the word water is used to refer to toilet seat. It looked like they were selling toilet water, and that is obviously not a good value proposition. Ikea is known for having Swedish product names internationally, which can sound like something funny in the best case, or something offensive at worst. One of their work benches became popular because of its name Fartfull. Fart means speed in Swedish, but in English… well it does not.


Local Practices

Language is one of the most obvious differences between countries, because we can hear it immediately. Things become a little harder when it comes to local ways of doing. One of my favorite examples that I remember from my first marketing class is of Gerber failing to learn about local practices in Ethiopia. The company sells baby food, and they entered the new market with the logo with a cute baby on the package. When people went to the store and saw the products, they were leaving horrified and shocked. How come? In Ethiopia, because a large part of the population is not able to read, companies put the image of what contained INSIDE the product, not the logo, on the packaging. No surprise they did not want their babies to eat that food.



Culture is best (if not only) learned by living and experiencing it. So, learning about the different symbols and meanings that people give to words, colors, stories, music, in another country from yours is not an easy task. Revlon learned about this the hard way when introducing a new fragrance made with camellia flowers in Brazil. They did not know that these flowers are used for funerals in Brazil. To give you another example, Nike had to pull a capsule collection from the market, as they used Samoan tattoos as the print for the clothes. The Samoans were offended because the tattoos are sacred to them, and even worse, the ones they chose to use are traditionally reserved for men but in this collection used on womenswear.



Politics is one of those topics we know it is delicate to talk about even among individuals. Imagine then if a brand is using it to send a message to millions of people, and across countries. It is risky. Fiat made a commercial in which Richard Gere was driving from Hollywood all the way to Tibet, where he finally leaves his handprints in the snow with the Dalai Lama. They received criticism from China because of the controversy over Tibet. Not only was the setting offensive, but also the choice of Richard Gere as the celebrity, who has long been an active supporter of Tibetan Independence.
Sometimes you just forget about political tensions, especially when your country is not directly involved in them. Coca-Cola posted a map of Russia that did not include Crimea in a new year’s post on social media. Faced with the indignation of Russian users, the company promptly changed the map, and added other claimed territories. At this point the Russians might have been happier, but Ukrainian customers were offended for Coca-Cola siding with Russia.


The lessons we can learn


Why Do We Make These Mistakes?

The easiest answer is lack of cultural awareness, and it might be true, but it is not that simple. Culture is a complex system of behaviors, attitudes and values that affects individuals. It is in most part hidden to a first observer and some things can only be learned from first-hand experience, it is not enough to read the norms and etiquette to understand a culture fully. It is also important to be aware that culture affects people’s perception, which is how they interpret what they sense. It is essential to make sure that the message you want to communicate is understood in the same way by the receiver. Moreover, we all have a degree of ethnocentrism, which is the tendency to look at the world from the perspective of our own culture. Ethnocentrism leads us to believe our way is the right way of doing things and assume others agree with us. It is helpful to understand others but also ourselves and our own behavior, values, and attitudes.


Tips to Avoid Cross-Cultural Mistakes


Think Global, Act Local

The global market is becoming more homogeneous, but cultural differences still exist. Ed Pilkington mentions “cultural differences and human similarities” and one solution could indeed be to find one shared human truth and express it in a way that resonates with the target market.

Do Not Follow Your Intuition

If you think you know something because you heard it somewhere, check again. Hasty decisions and ethnocentrism are at the root of embarrassing mistakes that can been avoided by checking one more time if that color is appropriate, if the symbol really means the same thing in another country, if that topic is taboo. Also, do not rely on Google Translate.

Get Local Help

Feedback is key to understand if your marketing strategy is appropriate and effective. Ask locals for help, since they understand the hidden part of their own culture and will know not only the language, but also the hidden meaning behind words, taboos, sensitive topics, and history of the country.

Be Ready to Change Communication Styles

You might discover that the communication style in the country you are working in is different to yours.
To improve the effectiveness of your message, be ready and open to change your style, for example by being explicit, using an elaborate language or putting emphasis on different benefits and aspects of your offering.

Be Careful with Stereotypes

Even though they can be a good tool for storytelling, my advice is to avoid using them completely in cross-cultural marketing, to be safe. Pointing out differences between cultures is sensitive. Moreover, be also careful with humor, as what might be funny in one culture is not always in another one.

Seek to Build Empathy and Relationships

Focus on gaining a deeper understanding of your customers and building a relationship with them. By being respectful and showing you know your audience you will create trust and loyalty among your customers.

It is Not About Knowing Everything

No one can possibly know everything about all cultures because the hidden parts of culture can only be learned from experience. What is important is to have the sensitivity to take the extra step to try to see things from a different perspective, question your own assumptions and dig deeper into other culture’s way of doing things.

Learn How to Apologize and Change

We can all make mistakes, but your behavior after the blunder can matter more. Apologies are delivered and perceived differently across countries, but sincerity seems to be an essential part in all cultures. Do not forget to change whatever caused offense and do not make the same mistake twice.

Learn Intercultural Communication

Intercultural communication teaches to be aware of cultural differences, perceptions, and ethnocentrism, giving you tools to bridge the gap between different cultures and can therefore benefit companies when marketing across different countries and cultural consumer groups. It fosters mutual understanding, respect, and trust, which can facilitate the relationship between consumers and the brand.


Anna Friberg

MIC Alumni