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Should you include cultural conversation in your international brand strategy?

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There isn’t one fixed meaning for culture. It involves patterns of human thought and behavior, shared attitudes, values, conventions, and social practices. It often relates to the traits, beliefs, and customs of groups, whether those are linked to society, race, religion, or another facet of identity.

There have been movements of people and cultures across the globe for centuries, and everyone has a cultural background, regardless of ethnicity. Today, we can learn about other cultures and find out what’s going on across the world in real-time.

Culture is important and the power of cultural conversation should not be ignored, particularly when a business is developing a new international brand strategy.

Cultural conversation and why it matters

Joining cultural conversations is important for brands because it helps your business stay relevant and stand out to your target audiences for all the right reasons.

Sometimes these types of conversations cover important, timely, and even political topics. For instance, in recent years we’ve seen people and brands all over the world joining global movements to confront and tackle racism, improve representation on screen, and take better care to understand cultural sensitivities (to name just a few).

These movements can have an impact on a huge scale, and this is partly because of the way the world now communicates – instantly and globally. A few decades ago, communicating with others would typically involve interactions with a relatively small group. Now, it’s completely normal to broadcast updates instantly to enormous and international audiences across social media.

This presents lots of benefits, such as keeping friends and families connected during the pandemic through mobile phones, online discussions, and Zoom calls when they were unable to meet face-to-face. On the other hand, instant access to the entire world online also creates opportunities to get it wrong, which is particularly risky for brands.

That’s no reason to avoid cultural conversations, though. In some cases, ignoring an important social movement and doing nothing at all can have an equally negative impact on sales and brand reputation.

There’s a lot for brands to consider, but in an ever-changing global market, the most important things for brands to do are:

  1. Tell stories
  2. Stay involved

Telling stories to connect with cultures

Your brand can use storytelling and content to achieve a two-way conversation with its audience. This builds deep connections, and when companies get it totally right, it can evoke meaningful and lasting consumer experiences.

Staying involved in conversations

A brand’s cultural involvement shows commitment to its community and demonstrates care and understanding of its audience. In turn, this develops the audience’s attachment and loyalty to the brand and what it represents.

Why international brand strategies need cultural conversation

Brands need to include cultural conversation in their strategies, not least because most brands are closely intertwined with culture from inception. Every brand has a story, and that story is usually strongly linked to a specific place or culture.

Leveraging cultural conversation within storytelling can be used to build positive brand sentiment, particularly when cultural topics speak directly to the communities that sit within a brand’s target market. When brands tap into cultural trends, support social issues and facilitate important conversations, they stay relevant over time.

While some brands contribute to culture, others become part of culture themselves. Think of the likes of Chanel, McDonald’s, or IKEA: All have strong brand stories, cultural relevance – and influence.

McDoanld's history

Author and former Harvard Business School professor Douglas Holt argued that brands become cultural symbols by responding to disruptions in society, exploiting cultural contradictions, and becoming cultural activists. His theory also suggests that both brands and cultures can be influenced by the same external circumstances, so it should be no surprise that they can become so entwined.

Breaking cultural boundaries

Connecting your brand with the cultural conversation isn’t a one-time process, but rather, a moving feast. Marketing Society wrote that culturally connected brands must be nimble and “draw their meaning from culture as it shifts.”

Keeping up with the cultural zeitgeist pays off, but it does require care. The most successful brands put in the work to connect with cultures and communities sincerely. For your brand to be relatable to audiences from different cultures, you need to tap into cross-cultural conversations, speak your customers’ languages and, most importantly, get the tone just right.

Breaking cultural boundaries is the only way to become a global brand. To join the cultural conversation, international brands should follow these tips:

Find culturally relevant topics

What do your brand’s biggest fans feel passionate about and want to hear more of? Tune into their frequencies so you can identify what interests them enough to engage with your brand, whether that’s by joining in the conversation on social media, following, subscribing, or making a purchase.

A good example comes from Starbucks. The brand built a campaign on the foundations of its well-known process of asking customers’ names to explore a topic relevant to the transgender community. Using their Every name’s a story commercial, they contributed to a wider cultural conversation while highlighting their intention of welcoming everyone.

Starbucks "Every name is a story"

Be authentic

The most important thing you can do when tapping into cultural conversations is to find topics that are aligned with your brand’s values.

Being insincere or superficial is more likely to blow up for all the wrong reasons, but joining cultural conversations that compliment your brand values means your messaging can be honest and genuine. This also improves the longevity of these marketing efforts because they won’t just be relevant for one cultural moment, but relevant for your brand indefinitely.

Contribute in a meaningful way

Joining the cultural conversation needs some thought. Although it may be well-intentioned, showing support in social channels with a quick statement is usually not enough. Instead, contributions need to be considered and meaningful.

For instance, fashion brands should not discuss the importance of sustainability without reflecting this with action, like a commitment to changing internal processes so the business uses less water or reduces waste.

When Levi Strauss & Co. launched the “most sustainable Levi’s” they also stated that this is just one step in a longer journey to: “reduce the environmental impact of our products and keep garments out of landfills.”

Sustainable Levi's

Meanwhile, the brand highlighted the durability and high quality of their products in their messaging elsewhere and reflected a similar sentiment on their homepage.

Levi Strauss homepage

If it’s your first time exploring how to add meaningful contributions to wider cultural conversations, it might be useful to map out your brand’s core values and processes, noting how these have connections or parallels to popular topics.

You might also want to plan ahead by highlighting areas that are likely to come up in cross-cultural conversations in the future while leaving space for these to develop depending on specific circumstances and nuances.

Use the right channels

Knowing your audience is marketing basics, but it stands true. Part of this is knowing where they hang out, and therefore, how you’ll get your brand in front of them.

You wouldn’t waste money on outdoor adverts in spaces where your target audience definitely won’t see them. Similarly, you need to consider this in online terms: Where is the main conversation happening? If the majority happens on Twitter, don’t use up time and resources discussing it on other platforms where it won’t make an impact.

Be relevant to a specific market

Using the same content and the same tone across every market is not a winning strategy, because the consumers that sit within different markets will have different wants, needs, interests, languages, and cultural backgrounds.

To achieve the best results, you should zero in on a specific market with each communication through localization, and test this carefully before you launch.

However, you should still maintain sincerity and consistency across all messaging. You don’t want to take a particularly strong stance on a cultural topic to suit one audience group if it doesn’t accurately reflect your brand’s wider approach and values. 

Own the conversation

If your brand has a specific topic at its heart, you should empower your team to start the discussion and drive it forward. Your brand can be the facilitator and present the subject for the first time, creating a core conversation that any group can join and develop.

There was a huge amount of media coverage around Iceland’s Christmas commercial, Rang-tan, created in collaboration with Greenpeace. The commercial showed the devastating effects of palm oil on an orangutan’s natural environment and successfully stirred up a conversation about this topic with consumers around the world.

Rang Tan Iceland Greenpeace

Deemed too political to air on TV in the UK thanks to the country’s strict advertising rules, some commentators suggested Iceland had expected this “ban” and written it into its wider strategy. Either way, this contributed to even more media coverage and the commercial became widely known as “Iceland’s banned Christmas advert.”

Keep in mind that people will likely refer back to your brand when they further the conversations you’re driving forward, so make sure you are prepared for that.

What not to do when joining the cultural conversation

Creating cross-cultural conversation that hits the mark involves more than just research, it requires critical thinking, perspective, and nuance. Contributions from your brand must be delivered carefully.

  1. Avoid generalizations – While marketing and localization inevitably require some consumer profiling, avoid blanket generalizations that trivialize the social conversation. Don’t lean on social or cultural stereotypes.
  2. Don’t be superficial – It is not unusual for cultural conversations to explore topics that are meaningful, provocative, and layered with important context and history. Superficial contributions are easily identifiable and won’t create the results your brand deserves.
  3. Steer clear of uninformed claims – Properly brief your team so you can create a safe space where they feel empowered to join the cultural conversation but know not to allow any personal assumptions or uninformed statements to spill over. Make sure they are researching from reputable sources, backing up claims, and that everything aligns with your brand values.

Brands sparking cultural conversations for all the wrong reasons

You’d be hard-pressed to find a campaign that sparked cross-cultural conversation more than Pepsi’s commercial with Kendall Jenner. It caused outrage worldwide and, by oversimplifying and downplaying complex issues, was accused of trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement.

The brand apologized and pulled the campaign, explaining they had tried to deliver a message of peace and unity but got it wrong: “We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are pulling the content and halting any further rollout.”

Pepsi's Kendall Jenner BLM

Products, like brands, can also hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons, like when Gap sold a t-shirt that displayed an incorrect map of China.

The company apologized after their design omitted the Chinese-claimed territories of south Tibet, the South China Sea, and Taiwan (the latter being China’s most sensitive territorial issue).

Gap's China map

Gap’s error is not the first time for a major brand to make this particular faux pas: the Guardian reported that similar incidents happened with Delta Air Lines and Marriott International.

Winning brand strategies that hit the mark

Bringing cultural conversation into your strategy can improve your brand reputation, encourage customer loyalty and validate your brand values. Getting it right is critical, but when you do, successfully initiating cultural conversation pays off.

The Adidas football boot from Egyptian footballer, Mo Salah, was the first item from the 21st century to be showcased in the Egypt collection at the British Museum. The campaign, run by H+K Global, introduced modern themes into a historic environment and successfully sparked the attention of its target Gen-Z audience.

British Museum and Mo Salah

Another success story comes from L’Oréal, a brand that embraces diversity across all areas of business, from products to marketing to recruitment, and harnesses this topic to engage in important social conversations.

As the world’s largest cosmetics company, L’Oréal’s strategy is universalization: “It means globalization that captures, understands and respects differences. Differences in desires, needs and traditions.”

To get the balance right between global and local, the company has hubs for research, innovation and marketing in each of their strategic markets: the US, Japan, Brazil, China, India, and South Africa.

L'Oreal strategy

Small businesses can have big conversations

Cultural impact isn’t reserved for the world’s biggest brands. Even smaller businesses can engage in cultural conversations across markets to make genuine connections with their local audiences.

Tips for getting started:

1. Demonstrate that your business understands the culture and speaks the language of any new market you are entering, and lean on localized style editing rules for your messaging.

2. Focus on “glocalization” (a merge of globalization and localization) for your global marketing strategies.

3. Be creative so that you can find or generate your own opportunities to spark the conversation and engage with audiences across markets.

Weglot is a useful tool in this context because it removes the technical issues created by content translation, enabling your business to focus more of its attention on other essential areas of your global brand strategy.

Engaging with the culture that surrounds your brand

Sparking or joining the cultural conversation keeps your brand relevant. Remember to look for topics that are significant to your target audience and always contribute in a way that is authentic and meaningful.

Brands that can find their purpose and engage directly with the culture that surrounds them are more likely to become part of that culture. Do this well and you will typically create a strong and memorable brand image, which positions your business for lasting success.

To support your international strategy with language translation and localization, sign up for a free trial with Weglot and transform your website into a multilingual platform in minutes.

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