Home > China >Cultural Differences And Knowing Your Market

In his latest Thursday Night Insight post, Matt Powell reflects on his experiences working in our China office and the difficulties inherent in conducting business across cultural boundaries.

I recently saw a TV advert from one of the world’s major banks that professes to its excellent local knowledge in every single country.  Of course, this campaign has been going for quite some time now as the bank positions itself not as a sprawling, faceless mega-corporation, but indeed as a very localised and personal bank.  Whether or not the bank does in fact deliver upon its promise remains to be seen, but the importance of local knowledge cannot be underestimated.

There are many horror stories about corporations naively taking one product or brand that is successful in one country and launching it into a foreign market without first adapting the product or its branding to meet the local culture.  Pepsi and Coca-Cola give two sterling examples of ‘how not to do it’.

When Pepsi launched their cola in China, the company thought it would be sufficient to translate their slogan "Pepsi Brings You Back to Life" into Chinese and simply launch the product.  Unfortunately, the slogan was translated a tad too literally and instead proclaimed that "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave."  Of course, the problem was rectified, but damage had already been done. 

Coca-Cola did something fairly similar when launching their product in China; they chose to launch their brand using Chinese characters that read phonetically as “Kekoukela”.  Of course, the phonetic spelling sounded similar ‘Coca-Cola’ to a westerner, but I imagine there weren’t many Chinese consumers looking to purchase a refreshing can of “female horse stuffed with wax”.  Surely, even just the smallest foray into market research would have highlighted these significant blunders, and saved the companies millions of dollars – let alone the damage done to the brands.  

Indeed, in many cases, the same message or piece of information can still cross hazy lingual and cultural boundaries.  I myself had an experience when on secondment in our Beijing office, where lingual barriers became slightly hazy to say the least.  Each day when finishing work I would order a taxi to where I lived, pronounced ‘Hua Mao’.  Every time I asked, the taxi driver would either laugh, shake his head, ask to see a map, or (in one extreme case) make a loud cat-like ‘miaow’-ing noise at me.  I knew I was saying the name of the location correctly, so although slightly perplexed at the behavior of the Beijing taxi drivers, I thought nothing of it… until, that is, one day towards the end of my stay when I took a taxi with some of my Chinese colleagues.  When I asked the taxi driver to me to my destination my colleagues burst into uproarious laughter – it turned out that for two months I had been saying the words correctly, but pronouncing them with the wrong tonal inflection – and, of course, was asking the taxi driver to take me to ‘cat with flowers’.  At least the miaow-ing taxi driver seemed slightly less disturbing after that.

Although it is an amusing story, it does indeed highlight the importance of local knowledge and just how critical the nuances of any language and culture really are.  To most westerners, what I was saying and what I should have been saying sounded fairly similar indeed, but (despite me always managing to get to my destination) the difference it made to the local person – the person who mattered – was huge.   

At B2B International we, like the large bank, recognise just how important local knowledge is.  Every country is different and brings with it a whole set of language issues and cultural traits.  We use ‘mother-tongue’ interviewers when conducting international interviews for this very reason; the cultural nuances are critically important in understanding information and indeed any subtle inferences that may be missed by someone who is not completely immersed in that particular culture or language.  Indeed, across our three offices we can span the globe from Asia, to Europe, to the Americas.

Our expertise can help our clients in many ways – from conducting multi-country studies in various languages, to conducting in-depth research and analysis in specific countries, to researching new markets to enter.  For more information about how we could help your Company, contact a member of research team at our European headquarters in Manchester, our Asian headquarters in Beijing, or our American head office in New York.

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