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Why do we Need Cultural Sensitivity in International Business?


Businesses who ignore cultural and language differences, do so at their peril! 

In this article, we'll explore some real life examples of the reasons why cultural sensitivity is so important and the damage caused when businesses ignoture culture.

Before we do so, however, let's first lay the foundations and take a look at the influence of culture more generally. 

You may have heard the saying 'the world is getting smaller' - it has gotten smaller.

Advances in transport and communications technology, combined with the development of a world economy, have resulted in people from different nations, cultures, languages and backgrounds now communicating, meeting and doing business with one another more than ever.

There are some observers that claim this new found intimacy has led to a greater understanding of 'the other' and as a result our cultural differences are in fact diminishing.

However, in reality the opposite is true. As we come together our cultural differences become accentuated as we start to realise that the rest of the world is not reading from the same book. One area where this is now being felt is in business.

Bill Gates at TED 2009 (3259639559)

Did you hear about Bill Gates and his lack of cultural sensitivity when he met the President of South Korea? It's a simple yet effective example of why we need cultural sensitivity in international business.

Click here to find out what he did!

Click image for source.

Doing Business Internationally Demands Cultural Sensitivity

Very few businesses escape the need to deal with foreign colleagues, clients or customers. Businesses are increasingly international, and if an organisation wants to develop and grow it needs to harness the potential an international stage offers.

Twenty years ago British, European and American organisations doing business abroad had very little competition due to the lack of rival industrialised nations. Back then it was easy to do business 'our way'. This is now no longer the case.

Since the largest global economies have evolved to include Japan, China, Mexico, Brazil, India and South Korea, there has been a shift from 'our way' to 'let's try and understand your way'. Why? Because western organisations are feeling the impact of a lack of cultural sensitivity on business performance.

With a recognition of the need to become more 'globally minded', many organisations have started to invest heavily in employee language training to help crack foreign markets.

Cultural sensitivity training is also increasingly being seen as essential in addressing issues such as etiquette, protocol, communication styles and negotiation approaches.

In a competitive world, such businesses appreciate that greater cultural sensitivity will assist them in forging longer and more prosperous relationships. Although the return of investment of cultural sensitivity training tends to be immediate, progress in uptake is slow. Unfortunately a subconscious sense of cultural superiority still seems to reign; one that assumes the rest of the world does business like us and if they don't then they should.

The world's inhabitants however come from many faiths, cultures, world views and experiences which makes such an assumption futile. We are all different and as a result doing business across borders (whether political, religious, cultural or linguistic) requires cultural sensitivity, meaning a sense of empathy, flexibility and creativity informed by cultural knowledge. As with most things in life, business has learnt the hard way.

To illustrate how these lessons have and are still being learnt we will look at some examples where a lack of cultural sensitivity has let a company, individual or product down.

For the sake of brevity these have been summed up in two simple categories: 1. culture and 2. language.

1. How a Lack of Cultural Sensitivity Led to Business Failure

Culture comes in many shapes and sizes. The following examples demonstrate how a lack of cultural sensitivity led to failure.

  • Microsoft - When colouring in 800,000 pixels on a map of India, Microsoft coloured eight of them a different shade of green to represent the disputed Kashmiri territory. The difference in greens meant Kashmir was shown as non-Indian, and the product was promptly banned in India. Microsoft was left to recall all 200,000 copies of the offending Windows 95 operating system software to try and heal the diplomatic wounds. It cost them millions.
  • McDonald's - The fast food giant spent thousands on a new TV ad to target the Chinese consumer. The ad showed a Chinese man kneeling before a McDonald's vendor and begging him to accept his expired discount coupon. The ad was pulled due to a lack of cultural sensitivity on McDonald's behalf. The ad caused uproar over the fact that begging is considered a shameful act in Chinese culture.
  • Gerber - When the US firm Gerber started selling baby food in Africa they used the same packaging as in the US, which featured a picture of a cute baby on the label. When sales dramatically dropped, they soon realised they had a catastrophic marketing failure to deal with.  It transpired  that in Africa, the approach to labelling is very different, as companies typically place pictures of contents on their labels. The idea of eating babies was clearly not a palatable one! 
  • Pepsodent -  When Pepsodent tried to sell its toothpaste in South East Asia, by emphasizing that it "whitens your teeth" , their marketing initiatives failured miserably.  Why?  Because the target audience view discoloured teeth as a sign of prestige and do not, as such, aspire towards white teeth. In fact, taking it a step further, they discovered that many of their target audience chew betel nuts to blacken their teeth and achieve the desired effect. 
  • Film Industry - The film "Hollywood Buddha" showed a complete lack of cultural sensitivity which led to outrage and large scale protests across  Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Burma. Why? Because the designer of the film's poster, depicted the lead actor sitting on a Buddha's head. The head is of such importance, that it is considered sacred in the Buddhist religion. It's clear therefore, why the artwork was perceived as depraved and 'unholy'. 
  • Reality TV -  A rather dubious decision was made to create and broadcase the 'Big Brother' reality tv show in the Middle East. The show was quickly taken off air following large public protests and pressure from religious bodies who stated that the show's mixed sex format  was in violation of core Islamic principles
  • Sporting Company - A golf ball manufacturing company packaged golf balls in packs of four for convenient purchase in Japan. Unfortunately, the number 4 has the same superstitious conotations as the number 13 in Western cultures.  This is due to the word for the number 'four' being a homophone for the word 'death' in Japan The company had to repackage the product, which turned into a very costly cultural error. 

2. How Language Differences Led to Business Failure

The business world is littered with poor translations that have caused great embarrassment to their perpetrators due to their lack of cultural sensitivity. The following are some of the choicest examples.

  • IKEA - This much loved Swedish business, once tried to sell a workbench called FARTFULL - not a hugely popular product for obvious reasons.
  • Clairol and Mist -  Both Clairol and the Irish alcoholic drink Irish Mist did not properly consider the German language when they launched their products there. Clairol's hair-curling iron "Mist Stick" and the drink "Irish Mist" both flopped - why? 'Mist' translates in German as "manure".
  • The Japanese seem to have a particular flair for naming products. The country has given us gems such as "homo soap", "coolpis", "Germ bread" and "Shito Mix".
  • A new facial cream with the name "Joni" was proposed for marketing in India. They changed the name since the word translated in Hindi meant "female genitals."
  • Coors -  This well known brewing company became even more well known for all the wrong reasons, when its slogan, "Turn it loose," was translated into Spanish.Unfortunately, this means to 'Suffer from diarrhoea' in Spain! Not a very compelling message from a brewing company. 

All the examples cited above could easily have been avoided by conducting some basic research in respect to checking the concept, design, shape, colour, packaging, message or name in the target culture.

In the majority of cases, the simple assumption of 'if it is OK for us it is OK for them' is clearly not the case. 

If businesses want to succeed internationally, cultural sensitivity must be at the heart of all business practices; from personal interactions and relationships with clients, to product/service development and advertising. 

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