They say it’s our differences that make us interesting – or words to that effect – and it’s a vital tenet to remember when working in international marketing, advertising or communications. Of course languages differ by country, but cultural differences have an even greater impact on whether a campaign is a success or an ignominious failure.
Even the response to something as simple as “made in the USA” varies wildly by country. In the United States, it’s a commitment to quality, heritage and pride that speaks to people across political and social divides. In Canada and the U.K., it’s generally a statement that the company is proud to be American, for better or worse. But in continental Europe, audiences have different perceptions of quality. German engineering, for example, is seen as something to aspire to, and so the tag “made in the USA” has more negative connotations.
Some of these differences are cultural, and reflect elements of national identity and humour. Others relate to the state of the market: How much competition exists, how diverse or similar competitors are, or how companies have sought to differentiate themselves. The impact of these differences is perhaps most visible in ad campaigns in different countries, and even seemingly similar countries can be very different environments for ad creative. Millward Brown has conducted in-depth analysis over the years of the differences between the best American ads and the best Canadian ads, and its findings make for fascinating reading. Among other things, American audiences are nearly twice as likely as their Canadian counterparts to feel that a large ad campaign indicates a product’s quality. What’s more, while the most successful American ads often employ celebrity spokespeople, those that perform best in Canada rely instead on nostalgia and family. In Canada, ads featuring celebrities typically fare less well.
Of course the importance of such cultural differences isn’t confined just to advertising. In communications and PR, companies also must have an in-depth understanding of every market in which they want to have an impact. FleishmanHillard’s Authenticity Gap research provides some useful comparisons.
Some are perhaps unsurprising. In the US, customers’ primary expectations of utilities (energy providers) is of consistent performance – “when I flip the switch, there will always be power.” And on the whole, companies in this space are seen to be meeting this expectation. In the UK, the energy market offers consumers more choice of energy providers, and customers’ primary expectation of utilities is of offering them better value. On the whole, U.K. utilities are perceived as missing this expectation. So two different markets, two very different requirements for communications from utilities.
Or take something as relatively uncontroversial as grocery stores. Across Canada, the U.K. and Germany, customers’ primary expectations of grocery stores is that they deliver value – and in all three countries, the perception is that grocery stores could do better.
In the U.K., the second thing customers want from supermarkets is credible communications, and only a couple of chains are seen as providing this. In Canada, customers don’t care as much about credible communications; instead they want their grocery stores to show innovation. In Germany, customers look for food retailers to be operated the right way – that is, ethically and transparently. On this metric, no grocery chain we surveyed is meeting expectations.
Clearly, companies must tailor their messaging to reflect these realities. They must demonstrate either how they meet customers’ expectations, or how they’re reshaping what audiences should expect of particular industries. We’re sometimes guilty as international firms of seeing the rest of the world as operating within our own paradigms. We see nuances across languages, borders and cultures, but may neglect to recognize the fundamental differences in how disparate audiences perceive what’s important. But as the research shows, in order to achieve true success across markets, companies really need to understand each individual country, and cater to those differences.