An Inconvenient Culture

Posted on August 15, 2007



Truly global products are a reality in our world today and have been for quite some time. You don’t even have to trust me on this one. It’s a fact. And we all know brands can transcend geographies and cultures too, or can’t they?

The topic of cross-cultural communication warrants endless blog posts, a dedicated section in every library, as well as lectures and classes in every school. So I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you. This isn’t even a scratch on the surface.

A company like Coke run profitable operations in almost every territory in the world, but is this the same as saying Coke is a truly global brand? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on how we choose to define a ‘global brand’. To this end, I apply a consumer-centric perspective as opposed to a business-centric one, which would invariably describe Coke as a global brand in every sense of the world.

My contention is that there aren’t actually any truly global brands. And I’ll explain why in a minute. However, there are quite a few global companies using the same brand name across markets. Now don’t stop reading here thinking this is nothing but a twist or technicality of definitions. It’s not. This is something infinitely more important for everyone involved in brand communication across cultures.

I’m not claiming the lines in this post to contain brand new thinking. They don’t, frankly. My reason for writing about this is that many companies don’t seem to take this reality to heart. Truth is many marketers, particularly those in Global HQs, find navigation through cultural differences on a global scale too complex, too inconvenient a task. So what do they do about it? They simply choose to ignore their existence. That way, brand campaigns that come out of say London or New York can be rolled out globally within a short period of time. Timelines are met. And come the quarterly job evaluation discussion with the marketing general, the foot soldiers will have something to show for. Everyone is happy. Well, that’s the general idea anyway.

For simplicity and as a point of reference, I’ll define a ‘global brand’ as a brand which carries the exact same perceived meaning regardless of which culture or in what minds it exists.

In the case of Coke, consumers’ perceptions of the brand may not be polar opposites across countries, I dare to say they’re not as Coke’s strategy is global, but there are differences nevertheless. For example, language barriers between countries mean that coke in a country like China is pronounced Ke Kou Ke Le. Its Chinese name is of course written in Chinese characters all of which carry specific meanings in and by themselves. I’m not denying this is Coke too. It promises refreshment, but because of differences in both the brand’s expression and the cultural orientation of its audience, it’s not perceived identically everywhere on earth; it’s not the exact same brand. It’s quite safe to assume that Coke’s irrefutable American origin is both a pro and a con across various parts of the world. In essence, Coke has many different faces. The features you identify and the meaning you assign to these will be dependent on your cultural vantage point.


Ke (Ke) = Approve, may, can, be able. Kou (Kou) = Mouth, hole, entrance.

Le (Le) = Happy, joyful, be glad to, enjoy, laugh.

KeKou (Kekou) = tasty, good to eat, palatable.

KeLe (Kele) = be happy.

It goes without saying that brands that want to succeed globally should try hitching themselves to universal human truths. That’s generally the easy part. The difficult part is understanding and navigating the cultural differences that often prevent resonant expression of this universal truth.

I strongly believe local adaptations [down to a consumer insight level and not just photo/language adaptations] must be prioritized by big brands in order to ensure global resonance and effectiveness of communication. To ensure that consumers in ‘foreign lands’ decode communication in a way that meets brand strategy, Global HQs and ad agencies will have to learn to adapt to this cultural reality.

I believe planners who plan across cultures should always approach a brief assuming that a one size fits all approach won’t work [adaptations will have to be made] and then think of it as a bonus if a closer examination shows that it does work.

The concept of culture is a funny thing. It permeates everything. All of us. On a fundamental level it relates to the concept of meaning in a profound sense; it’s about perspective. There are hundreds of definitions of ‘culture’ which all reflect slightly different theories for understanding. Let’s say ‘culture’ is a set of learned beliefs, values and behaviors – the way of life – shared by the members of a society or social group. Then, by definition, everything is cultural; nothing is immune to it. So being acutely aware of one’s own cultural biases, which requires both humility and focus is a critical ability for both planners and creatives.

Cultural anthropologists [including my wife Annie] tell us that our experiences and the objects we see around us don’t carry meaning in and by themselves. Rather, it is we who assign meaning to them. And how we do this is heavily influenced by our learnings – ‘cultural programming’ – and frame of reference. An example of this is the legendary Sony Walkman.


Nobutoshi Kihara at Sony didn’t design the Walkman with the intention to offer people on the move a way to tune out from the world around them; he designed the Walkman so that people, including himself, could listen to music without disturbing others. You see the Japanese take the word politeness very, very seriously.

Below is my basic framework for explaining cross-cultural (brand) communication. In this model, a marketer in Culture ‘A’ conceives a strategic communication idea (proposition). Advertising creatives are then given the task to develop the creative vehicle for this message. They create an ad with the strategic idea encoded in it, drawing on the symbols, values, beliefs and artifacts from their own cultural home, Culture A. This is what they understand; it’s what feels ‘right’ to them.

The ad then gets exported to Culture B in which consumers decode the ad message based on the values, beliefs, symbols and artifacts known to them, those of Culture B. The size of the overlapping area between Culture A and Culture B, ‘Shared Cultural Elements’ correlates with the discrepancy between the Marketer’s idea (Culture A) and the consumer-perceived message (Culture B).

[As you can see, the model assumes that creatives manage to encode 100% of the marketers strategic thinking in the ad. Reality is often somewhat different. Ahem.]


Here’s what happens when more cultures come into the picture.


Posted in: Planning-related