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How to market your ecommerce business with cultural sensitivity

A man making notes in a notepad
in Retail and Ecommerce

Less than half a century ago, there were all but a few brands that were known globally. This included Shell, Coca-Cola and IBM. They were soon joined by the likes of Honda and Toyota, McDonald's and Burger King, Nike and Adidas, Microsoft and Apple, each of them successfully expanding their reach beyond their domestic borders.

More recently, the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter have successfully established themselves as global household names, utilising the power of the web to provide and endorse their borderless services. A lot has certainly changed in terms of how possible it is to be internationally recognised and profitable through online ventures.

In short, it's much more achievable, and as we noted in an article on globalising your website last month, it's a "business must to have a strong presence online". While that may not necessarily equate to being globally-focused – your business can still be geared towards a domestic audience – a strong web presence nevertheless increases your visibility.

And, moreover, it's advocated. For example, two years ago, UK Trade and Investment launched a Grow Online, Expand Worldwide campaign, encouraging and supporting small and medium-sized businesses to develop ecommerce capabilities.

As Helen Dickinson, director-general of the British Retail Consortium, commented at the time: "Even the smallest retailers have a massive opportunity to expand their businesses through exporting to new markets."

Moving from a national to an international outlook is not without its challenges. One of the most consistent problem areas concerns the inability to market a brand appropriately and effectively in target markets. Cultural sensitivity is paramount in this regard and in this guide we look at what you need to consider before you embark on any sort of campaign.

When marketing goes wrong

There are numerous examples of organisations committing some shocking marketing blunders over the years. One of the most popular ones cited by experts is Pepsi's foray into China. Its tagline "Come alive with the Pepsi generation" was instead translated from English into Chinese as “Pepsi brings your dead ancestors back from the grave". The result was an alleged dip in sales.

While you can make light of mistakes like this, they nevertheless come with severe reputational and financial consequences. In a 2011 paper entitled Studies on Translation and Multilingualism, the European Commission explained that the cost of poor quality translation is "substantial", accounting for between 25 per cent and 40 per cent of operating costs.

For example, HSBC ended up spending close to £7 million on rebranding its entire global private banking operations in 2009 to effectively replace its five-year Assume Nothing campaign. This was widely translated as Do Nothing in certain countries, the kind of sentiment that went against what it wanted – more stakeholder engagement.

Go deeper than just translation

These examples highlight the failure of enterprises to fully appreciate the complexities that come with communicating a message in a different language. A simple translation will not suffice because the environment you're now in is radically different from the one you're used to.

As Harish Hemmige, principal in the Chicago Office of the Boston Consulting Group, noted in an interview with Knowledge@Wharton in 2014: "With scale comes complexity and a lack of transparency because you're going from an environment where you had a single-market, single-brand kind of a business to 50-plus global markets managing multi-brand portfolios."

Each of these markets is distinct and while you may have only one message to promote, it has to be channelled in a unique way to deliver the same impact. That's what we mean by "going deeper than translation".

To achieve this you need to embrace a mix between transcreation – adapting your message to appeal to different markets without losing the original meaning – and localisation – which modifies your content to cater for various cultural nuances, for example.

This is no easy task, as any given culture has its own set of traditions, ideas about how society should be organised, the role of religion, the concept of freedom and what is morally acceptable. Your marketing needs to be readable in the target language and "culturally-optimised".

"Translation not only involves [a] translator’s or interpreter’s linguistic competence, but also calls for the acquaintance with the respective cultures," remarked Hui Guo, professor of finance at the Carl H. Lindner College of Business at the University of Cincinnati, in a succinct paper in 2012.

"In this sense, translation means more that merely translating the words, sentences or articles from the source language into the target language. It means also to transfer between cultures."

Think beyond words

This transfer goes beyond just words and extends into how a message is presented, the "visuals of translation" so to speak. You may well have delivered a message in the right way, on the right channel and at the right time but because you’ve not fully considered everything, it can end up being an embarrassing and disastrous investment.

Consider colour and symbols. For example, in much of Western Europe and the Americas, the colour white is associated with purity and marriage. However, in China, Japan and parts of Africa, it is more sombre in tone: it is the colour of mourning.

This in-depth guide highlights some of the key ways in which colour is perceived around the world and goes to show how important the design of your website is.

McDonald’s is one brand that certainly recognises this and moreover understands why it is important to go that extra mile. It adapts each of its target country websites to fit in with their distinct identity. For example, in Belgium, the theme is very cosmopolitan, in Chile it’s a lot more family friendly, while in Saudi Arabia, the tone is a lot more serious.

Invest in expertise

Carrying out thorough research is welcome, but unless you're an expert in the target market, fluent in the language and familiar with cultural idiosyncrasies that non-native marketers would otherwise overlook, chances are you're going to be somewhat lacking in expertise.

It's worth investing in external specialists to ensure that any transition to an international base of operations is backed by those with the kind of experience and understanding that will deliver positive results. They are an incomparable asset after all, as their focus as an enterprise is on delivering bespoke language translation solutions. You can't mimic that.

Will Wynne, co-founder and managing director of Arena Flowers, knows this from experience. Speaking to the BBC in 2011, he said that when his company first started translating pages on its website to appeal to international customers, it was done in an ad hoc and very basic manner.

It wasn't until later, when proper globalisation of the website was desired that Mr Wynne was informed that his website was "littered with mistakes", which he had no way of knowing. That gap in knowledge can be a huge disadvantage, especially if you have no real way of assessing things.

"You need to have credibility," Mr Wynne said. "Having spelling mistakes on your front page, it makes you look shoddy."

Embrace the culture

There are so many reasons why it makes sense for you to market your ecommerce business to an international audience. It offers you the opportunity to diversify and multiply your revenue stream, opens your business up to more customers and allows you to transform the way you work through new learning.

Yet, it is not without its difficulties. Operating globally tests your preconceptions and challenges the way you may have previously worked. You can no longer think with one voice – you have to be sensitive to the cultural differences of your new markets and how they will respond to your messages.

This comes from trust, in both your ability to deliver effective marketing strategies and your partner organisation's ability to present your ecommerce business in the most effective way. With teamwork, collaboration and patience, you can compete on the international stage.

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