10 Oct Culturally sensitive communication
How to make your brand fit for global markets
For the brand communication of globally active companies, it is of decisive importance to take the cultural circumstances of individual countries into account. Thanks to global networking via the Internet, their disregard can quickly lead to an international crisis for the brand.
– Article written by Dr. Niklas Schaffmeister and published in kommunikationsmanager 3, 2019 –
It could have been an ode to the highly esteemed food culture of the Chinese people. Instead, the “D&G loves China” campaign by the Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana created a shitstorm that reached across international media in the end of 2018. What was the campaign showing? A well-known Chinese model tries to eat Italian dishes with chopsticks which they had filmed in the run-up to a fashion show in Shanghai. Unfortunately, in vain.
The inappropriate portrayal of a Chinese model discredited D&G internationally.
What was originally perhaps intended as a funny reference to cultural differences between Italy and China violated several cultural values as well as the pronounced national pride. In China, the commercials were perceived as an insult to its millennia-old food culture and the traditionally strong role of the Chinese woman. Together, this brought D&G the widespread accusation of racism and cultural ignorance.
After well-known personalities publicly called for a boycott of the brand, the catastrophe was complete: the fashion show had to be cancelled, and to placate the media Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana took part in a public repentance video show. Media worldwide reported on this far-reaching faux pas, which was essentially based on a well-intentioned idea. Unfortunately, however, the strategic communication design and implementation of the idea failed immensely and damaged the brand’s reputation considerably.
Knowledge is (economic) power
The case of the “D&G loves China” campaign is a striking example of how current this topic is. Although digital media has long since found its way into the communications mix of internationally active companies, many people still don’t fully understand what this level of reach means. Because, with the rise in number of countries in which a brand is represented, the “chances” of unwanted slips increases. Hence, it is important to protect the brand from this as much as possible.
At the same time, insight into the national values of a country offers great opportunities for entrepreneurial success for two reasons. Firstly, because you can adapt your business model and positioning to the cultural context and tailor it to the local demand that is based on it. And secondly, because you can leverage existing values, prejudices and people in such a way that you can gain positive attention. This could also have been achieved with the D&G campaign.
Coming back to the D&G debacle: A tailor-made campaign around the cultural asset “food” was basically a good starting point. Anyone who is only a little involved with the Chinese market will quickly learn that there is a great deal of delight surrounding the topic. Not for nothing does the Chinese language know more than twenty different terms for cutting meat and vegetables – not to mention the many terms for preparing food.
Brand Safety First
Companies are now faced with the great task of communicating their brand in a manner both authentic and culturally appropriate. In order to sensitize them to this topic, the management consultancy Globeone developed the so-called “Brand Safety Training”. The tailor-made program is aimed at communication and marketing departments as well as the management of headquarters and local branches, and provides a roadmap for new markets.
The first block of the Brand Safety training shows how culture and communication work together and uses examples to explain where they can pose a threat to the core message of brands when implemented. An important example of this is the degree to which brand positioning is adapted to local conditions – from global to hybrid to local. Among others the local perception of the country of origin of the brand plays a decisive role.
After the general introduction to the topic, the second step addresses the special features of the respective markets. This is based on six central value dimensions: 1) values, faith & behavior, 2) language, 3) symbols, 4) roles, 5) people, 6) politics & institutions. Using examples, we show how international brands have already successfully integrated these values into their advertising, but also which contents are absolute no-go’s.
The “Cultural ignorance” pitfall
The third part goes into the actual practice of these teachings. Here discussion will take place on how the six value dimensions are reflected in the thinking, feeling and acting of the target groups, and how other companies have implemented this – both with more, and less success. In addition, there are various concrete case studies which are analyzed step by step to determine exactly what the goal of the communication measure was, how it was implemented and which problems arose at which points.
One of the negative examples for the value dimension “values, faith & behavior” comes from Cadillac. In a commercial for one of his high-priced vehicles an obviously wealthy man praises the Americans’ ability to work hard for their dreams. Instead of leaving it at the celebration of one’s own national pride, however, they are heavily handed out against other nations who instead prefer to sit in the café and take the entire month of August as a summer break.
Overly complacent, Cadillanc turns the "American Dream" into an "American Nightmare".
With this commercial Cadillac has not only managed to downgrade other cultures with the greatest possible arrogance, but also to sell the value of the “American Dream” so badly in one breath that it met heavy criticism in its own country. The pitfall in this case was not so much the disregard for local cultural conditions, but rather the incredibly exaggerated and smug portrayal.
The devil often lies in the detail
But there can also be an enormous discrepancy between intention and result with much less effort. To celebrate that women in Saudi Arabia are now officially allowed to drive a car, Burger King launched the “WhoppHER” campaign. Every driver who drove through the Drive Thru received a Whopper for free. What was unfortunately overlooked: “to whop her” translated means “hit her”, which is extremely reprehensible in view of the role of women in Saudi Arabia.
Burger King's "WhoppHER" campaign turned out to be massive flop.
In its fourth and final part, the Brand Safety Training will ultimately lead to an individually prepared checklist. In this checklist it is precisely defined which measures the participants can use to take into account the individual values of their brand in all communication and marketing activities and in which areas particular caution is required. This ensures that the brand benefits optimally from the knowledge of cultural peculiarities and that the brand core is protected at the same time.
The Brand Safety Training takes one to two days – depending on the requirements – and can be tailored to any desired market: be it emerging markets such as the BRIC countries or leading economic nations such as the USA and China. By the way: You are mistaken when you think that this topic is only relevant for external channels. Even within globally positioned companies, it is important to communicate in a culturally secure way in order to prevent misunderstandings on a large scale.
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