Examining Intercultural B2B Communication—An Expensive Luxury?

An article by Klaus Kunz, Scientific Advisor of effective Institute of Intercultural Competence, about brand failures in intercultural context

Klaus Kunz, Scientific Advisor of effective Institute of Interc...
(PresseBox) ( Mannheim, )
It has become obvious that many companies view the process of globalization not as leveling cultural traits, but rather having the opposite effect - namely increasing the awareness and importance of market operators of their local cultural conditions and characteristics.

Globalization was purported to level the playing field between cultures, “flattening” the world to a point where businesses could easily adapt their products, services, and messaging to a broader, more “global” audience. In reality, it appears that the opposite effect has taken place; globalization has sharpened the differences and distinctions of cultural traits and cleavages between societies and peoples, thus creating an environment where market operators and business actors needed to adequately prepare for the jump between local cultural conditions and expectations in order to achieve success.

The move towards globalization and a more unified global culture began with a lot promise and research from the social sciences, before it found its way into business school classrooms and boardrooms. Katja Gelbrich and Stefan Muller[1] developed a comprehensive theory, paving the way for considerations of cultural dimensions to make an impact on corporate decisions and strategy. Hofstede, Hall, and Trompenaars echoed these ideas, further solidifying the trend for business topics to be examined side-by-side with cultural studies. In particular, the Institute of Communication & Leadership (IKF) in Lucerne—under the direction of Dr. Dietmar Treichel—analyzed from a systemic point of view, the limitations and opportunities present in a given cultural paradigm.

The shift of enterprises now taking cultural market conditions into account quickly expanded amongst economic sectors and industries. It became essential for not only enterprises making end products, but also for those offering services to make a global commitment to understanding and appreciating the differences between the cultures and markets in which they conduct operations.

Now, translations agencies collect “localization”[2] data and customize it for a particular market or business need. This involves looking at brand terminology and other business-specific words in the context of what it means in a culturally inclusive environment. A direct translation is no longer enough. It is crucial that businesses take into account particularities such as the correct date/time format, spellings, and decimal point locations in their messaging.

Eventually, this elongated concept of “culture” was applied to online marketing and social media. Just as it was in the analog days, problems of cultural translations and relevance (such as the Mitsubishi “Pajero” faux pas) exist in the online and digital space as well. These frontiers make brand failures and violations of cultural norms all the more possible and expensive to fix.

One such instance took place in August 2013.

Chemical company Henkel, who makes a variety of cleaners, detergents, and other household items, decided to launch its newest product—a toilet bowl cleaning solution—in Ukraine. The ads launched in the former Soviet-bloc country and were met with a firestorm of protests and angry outbursts from YouTube[3] and Facebook users who demanded a boycott of the company and its product. The ad showed the dual-colored cleaning solutions—a mix of blue and yellow—swirling down a sparkling toilet. How could something so simple create such a violent reaction? Those same blue and yellow colors represent the national flag of Ukraine and all of the pride and history of that nation, and Henkel effectively flushed them down the toilet.[4]

One might think, “Could this really happen to me? What is the likelihood?” And yet, it did happen. Apart from the production costs for the commercial mistake, the company’s imagine in that market suffered the most. The costs associated with that sort of damage are often are incalculable.

From this experience it can be clearly stated that the inclusion of cultural aspects and sensitivity in the planning and implementation of communication activities in a foreign cultural environment is not a luxury, but absolutely essential.

So how did it come to be possible for a company such as Henkel—with an already strong background and experience in establishing global links—make such a fundamental mistake?

The answer is complex.

First and foremost, the product itself was not specifically designed for the Ukrainian market, and was also not available for sale there. It is therefore entirely possible that the color scheme with regards to the target markets—in this case Russia and Kazakhstan—was in fact vetted and checked in advance. However, major fault lies in the fact that a systemic analysis of all cultural communication activities was given too little attention.

Even if there had been a systemic analysis of culture in this case (we do not know exactly), the failure is most likely due to the fact that—and here is it a bit more complex—that the systemic view of the relevance of culture-appropriate activities to communicate a culture or country is still quite underdeveloped and quite full of generalities and stereotypes. Certain aspects of cultural dimensional analysis are repeatedly used as processes and measures, such as Hofstede’s basic cultural dimensions.

A reassessment of all approaches, or a synergetic approach, should aim to match parts of empirical study results and merge these with the observed cultural dimensions.

Herein lies the opportunity for companies to avoid disruptions and continue to optimize communication measures and messages for foreign markets or locations under the prevailing cultural conditions.

effective world GmbH has established the Institute for Intercultural Competence as a resource for business enterprise, which is unique in Germany. The knowledge of customer needs, expectations, and activities in foreign markets has established effective world as an expert in the service area of intercultural competence and understanding.

What are the working areas of the Institute?

In addition to the systematic clarification and research of names and terms in different languages—colors, images, and symbols are also vetted in the required cultural areas. Furthermore, the Institute also carries out studies and assessments on issues such as:
  • What is the difference between German and Chinese humor? What is the laughter like or what is perceived as funny—and what are the limits?
  • How specified company values or mission statements are perceived in different cultural clusters within Germany?
  • How can “corporate culture” of a given enterprise be adequately communicated to other countries, as well as transposed?
Furthermore, we deal with the question “To what extent do cultural characters affect the presentation, content, and communication preferences of a user’s online experience outside of the home country?”

For this purpose we have developed a framework of parameters. The result of such an analysis and evaluation is that a company receives important reference points for the design and content for its culturally-appropriate localized website(s).

The close integration of teaching, research, and practice are crucial to the quality of work of the Institute. This close connection allows the Institute to apply the latest knowledge for its cooperating partners’ work.

The operations of the Institute follow an hermeneutic approach, focusing on both cultural philosophy and communication theory, as validated by reputable study results. Examples of these include the GLOBE Study[5] and the de Troyer (WISE Research Group)[6]. We are always working on the cutting edge of research and are familiar with the possible solutions to the adaptation challenges of cultural communication activities.

The transfer of research results into actual practice is the responsibility of our marketing and key account managers, who take the unique requirements of each customer’s into consideration.

The systemic and systematic analysis of all communication activities with regard to intercultural aspects and points of friction is therefore not an expensive luxury—but rather safeguards against costly communication breakdowns and expensive reworking or even redesign of campaigns and communication materials. This process allows communication activities to protect the image of the company, as well as send messages that are appreciated by the target population. The importance of goodwill and positive-impressions cannot be undervalued in a globally networked world.

[1] Gelbrich/Müller (2004): Interkulturelles Marketing, Verlag Vahlen, München
[2] Localization: Website localization is the process of adapting an existing website to local language and culture in the target market (Quelle: http://en.wikipedia.org/..., abgerufen am 04.10.2013)
[3] http://www.youtube.com/..., abgerufen am 04.10.2013
[4] http://www.handelsblatt.com/..., abgerufen am 04.10.2013
[5] House/Hanges/Javidan/Dorfman/Gupta (2004), Culture, Leadership, and Organizations: The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies, SAGE Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA
[6] WISE Research Group, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, http://wise.vub.ac.be/
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