Make your ads relatable for people of different cultures
22 Mar 2022

Tips for cross-cultural marketing

cross-cultural marketing

Globalization influences the advertising world every single day. However, the norms and traditions of a society are intertwined with culture. Culture includes several elements: history, common character traits, geographical location, language, religion, music. It is manifested in a society’s creative and intellectual achievements, and it is upheld through a set of behavioral rules, which pass down through generations.

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For brands that function on a worldwide level, the focus on culture in marketing is vital, especially when your brand is working in countries that are culturally distinct from where it is located. For small and medium-sized enterprises or publishers, it is even more important as it allows them to gain new customers all over the world and work with different locations. 

That is why, when delivering messages, advertising specialists should be aware of the local culture. It is crucial for designing effective localized marketing campaigns that represent the cultural values and norms of the intended audience so that people can identify with the brand’s products.

In this article, you can find some tips on how to analyze where your target audience is from and its cultural peculiarities. Moreover, this article is designed to provide you with efficient recommendations concerning the usage of slang, metaphors, and idioms in your cross-cultural marketing campaigns. 

Target audience’s cultural background

The first question you should ask yourself — “where is my target audience from?”. That is the starting point of any intercultural advertising campaign. After that, you need to become aware of the history, trends, cultural norms and values, including religion, in the chosen country. 

It is of utmost importance that the target market perceives the message in the way that it was intended. Some symbols or words may be offensive to a particular group of people. For example, the “V” gesture with the palm faced inward in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, or New Zealand is as offensive as the middle finger. However, in America, it means either victory or peace. 

Moreover, sometimes the folklore is distinct, especially when it comes to the comparison of Western and Asian cultures. For instance, Proctor and Gamble’s marketing of Pampers in the US was spot on, with a TV commercial picturing a cartoon stork carrying diapers to a grateful family. 

Nevertheless, when P&G tried to promote diapers to the Japanese market using the same imagery from western folklore of a stork carrying the infant, they faced misunderstanding and a decline in sales. That happened because the Japanese market was utterly unfamiliar with the concept of a stork delivering babies. 

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Thus, the transmission of a brilliant message to the wrong audience is what you should avoid the most in advertising.

Knowing the culture of your audience gives you more opportunities to be heard and to receive the desired response. Culture not only influences people’s mentality but also adds subjectivity to their judgment. 

Generally, people look at the same situations through different lenses depending on their mentality and the cultural background of their countries, and this can be seen in the example mentioned above. 

A useful tool to identify the basic cultural differences between your country and your foreign target audience is Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory. This theory provides information about any country’s national peculiarities and mentality’s significance in shaping the differences in perceptions, corporate culture, domestic life, relationships, and many other spheres of life. 

It includes five cultural dimensions: power distance, individualism versus collectivism, masculinity versus femininity, uncertainty avoidance, and long- versus short-term orientation. 

Power distance estimates power distribution and social inequality in societies. For instance, in countries with high power distance, the advertisements might feature how the elders advise or teach the young. According to the cultural dimensions theory, India is a high power distance country. This Indian advertisement for Ariel shows how the mother realizes that she should have taught her son to do household work and proceeds to show him how to do the laundry. 

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Masculinity and femininity rates reflect the importance of relationships, status, and the tendency to demonstrate material achievements. People of masculine cultures prefer ads that show greatness, power, and being the best. The recent BMW commercial for the USA shows how this car is “where power meets luxury”, it describes the car’s qualities and perfection.

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Feminine cultures, on the contrary, are more focused on caring for others, building bonds and relationships. South Korea is a country with a high femininity rate. This South Korean commercial features how the family is gathering for dinner, and there is a significant focus on family relationships, communication, and caring for others.

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Uncertainty avoidance concentrates on general societal acceptance of ambiguity and uncertainty — in other words, unplanned circumstances. The high uncertainty avoidance score of the country implies that its people have a low tolerance for ambiguous situations. Also, they are less likely to encourage new ideas, do not take risks, and strictly obey the law. People in these countries are cautious of new brands and stay loyal to the reliable products they trust. Trust can be built with the help of test reports, scientific proof and advice. They also prefer seeing all the necessary information in detail about how the product works. 

For example, the Heinz website for Portugal, which is considered to have an extremely high uncertainty avoidance score, has simple and clear navigation and provides information about the brand’s history right on the main page.

There is also a section where the process of ketchup production is explained in great detail.

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The country’s low uncertainty avoidance score suggests that it is more inclined to accept a wide range of viewpoints. Additionally, such a country is more flexible in its attitude to new ideas and innovations. Moreover, this indicates that individuals enjoy experimenting with new brands. They have a relatively low level of brand loyalty and are not wary of new goods. Besides, they are more willing to take chances on trendy and original designs and descriptions. Generally, the result is more important than detailed information and scientific proof.

For instance, Apple advertisements and commercials for the USA, the country with low uncertainty avoidance, show the main features and value of the product. “1000 songs in your pocket” is the simplest way to explain why a customer should buy an iPod.

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Long- vs short-term orientation studies the link between the past and present of the country, as well as the issues it faces. 

Long-term thinkers sometimes cast aside short-term concerns to plan for the future. Persistence, tenacity, and adaptation are significant in long-term oriented societies. Practical value and long-term objectives are prioritized over immediate enjoyment. Individuals with a long-term orientation appreciate tradition, social hierarchy, and history. 

For instance, this commercial from Singapore’s IKEA displays the practical application of the furniture for a young couple with a newborn baby. Singapore is a highly long-term oriented country, according to Hofstede’s dimensions of culture.

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Short-term orientation is dwelling on the present or past, with these taking precedence over the future. People in such cultures tend to live in the moment and appreciate quick results. That is why simple design with immediate access to the categories and facts about the product.

This South African commercial is an excellent example of a country’s values with a short-term orientation. It is clear and precise, displays instant gratification and result, and operates with short yet concise information about the product.

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All these dimensions can be utilized when designing advertisements, however, one of the most prominent dimensions is individualism versus collectivism. 

Collectivism can be defined as the extent to which individuals regard themselves as interdependent and as belonging to specific groups instead of as self-sufficient individuals. In highly-collectivistic cultures, traditions and family are at the forefront of the value system. On the contrary, individualism reflects the degree to which people have their independent self-definition. 

For example, according to G.Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory, people in Mexico represent collectivistic culture, compared to the Americans. That can be observed in their advertisements.

The commercials for Maybelline New York’s foundation show how collectivistic and individualistic values can affect the commercials, designed for the same product in two different countries. “8 out of 10 found their ideal shade” — the slogan for the Mexican advertisement, while the American commercial does not mention this, as it is more focused on depicting the characteristics of the product and on the reinforcement of its advantages for an individual customer. 

cross-cultural marketing
cross-cultural marketing

Pro Tips. Every marketing specialist should be attentive to their target audience’s cultural peculiarities and background. Research everything related to the intended audience’s country, including history, appropriate symbols, visuals, and gestures. 

It might be useful to turn to Hofstede Insights — a website where you can look up your target audiences’ country and its relation to the previously discussed cultural dimensions. This website provides information about the scores the country of your choice has in different dimensions, a short description of each dimension, and it allows you to compare more than two countries. 

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When you are launching a marketing campaign, you may set up integration with Google Ads. You can set up automatic conversion forwarding from Google ads to your Admitad Affiliate account when you generate contextual traffic from Google Ads directly to Admitad Affiliate programs. Contextual advertisements can be quite useful when you have designed a cross-cultural marketing campaign. 

Before creating or localizing advertisements it may be useful to check Google Trends for the target audience’s country to get insights about what is the topic-of-the-day there or what was searched more often throughout a certain year. Based on these topics you can do research and create unique and appealing marketing campaigns just for that audience. 

Besides, Google Trends website shows the most searched celebrity in the target country, and this might be helpful when the country has a high power distance score, as in such cultures the words or recommendations of a popular or powerful person have a great value. 

Moreover, you can look up the analysis of a certain word or phrase’s search frequency in almost any country to make sure that your product is relevant to this country. This will help you save money because you will know beforehand whether it is a good idea to promote your product there. 

Slang in the advertisements for natives vs nonnatives

As we have examined the interrelation between cultural background and advertisements, let us move on to the discussion of marketing from a linguistic point of view, as culture and language are closely interconnected. 

First and foremost, we need to clarify the definition of the word slang. Slang equates to the highly informal words and phrases in the speaker’s dialect or language. These words are frequently geographically or culturally limited. That leads us to the realization that the usage of slang in advertising is a tricky issue, as it should be used cautiously with nonnatives and appropriately with natives. 

Some people might completely misunderstand or not understand the message you are trying to transmit. Some audiences, even in the country of the company’s origin, depending on different factors, may assume that slang is inappropriate and will be less inclined to buy the product. 

Another important point here is the fact that many phrases with slang, even though they might be well-received in the country of origin, may not translate well in other languages. Moreover, desired emotions and feelings might not be transmitted when colloquials are localized across languages and cultures. 

The people from Australia sometimes use slang terms that are incomprehensible for British, Canadian, or American audiences. For example, the slang word Macca’s in the Australian dialect means McDonald’s. After conducting a survey on how many people use this slang word, McDonald’s team found out that 50% of Australians use that name and decided to embrace it.

McDonald’s in Australia was turned into Macca’s running up to Australia Day, not only on the company’s website, but also in commercials, ads, on menus, and even on store signs. Although this name was only temporary, McDonald’s has registered Macca’s as a trademark and routinely uses the name on media platforms and for its Australian webpage, as the people really appreciated the attention to details of the McDonald’s marketing team.

cross-cultural marketing
cross-cultural marketing

In Australia, this adaptation to the local culture had a positive effect on the company’s image. 

However, there are many cases in cross-cultural marketing when slang was translated in a completely unintended way. For example, Vicks at first marketed cough drops in Germany without realizing that the German pronunciation of “v” is “f,” turning “Vicks” into slang denoting sexual intercourse. Of course, it was later customized and became “Wick”. 

Therefore, slang may either resonate with a particular audience or may create unnecessary complications for the company, and this can happen simultaneously. 

Pro Tips. Finding great localization specialists in another country is not an easy task. However, it is essential for creating effective advertisements. 

Another tool is transcreation that should happen in cross-cultural advertising. Transcreation is usually applied along with translation. The main feeling, style, and intent of the source text are preserved by transcreation. Still, instead of focusing on finding identical words, it presents the content differently without the loss of the original message. 

When you do not have an opportunity to work with localization specialists, you can always turn to dictionaries. We recommend The Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary as it includes several languages and decent translations from English. However, it is still quite limited, that is why we recommend searching for specialized dictionaries for the language of your choice. There are plenty of them on the internet and in printed versions. For example, there is a free slang glossary with more than 10 languages. 

Metaphors in cross-cultural advertising

Metaphor exists at a conceptual level. For example, many people conceptualize life as a journey or view the heart as a symbol of love. 

The ability of metaphors to assimilate new experiences to familiar patterns of perception is the root source of their power. Advertisements serve as a universal example of conceptual metaphors. Part of an advertisement’s marketing value is determined by how successfully the conceptual metaphor elicits the message by means commonly used in commercials. A well-chosen metaphor works wonders in marketing a product. 

Despite that fact, metaphors are frequently perceived as unquestionable common sense as people learn them from an early age. However, it is crucial in cross-cultural advertising to be aware that metaphors, being a conceptual phenomenon, may be different in distinct cultures. For instance, in the Chinese language, there is a conceptual metaphor: “happiness is the blooming flowers in the heart”.

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The heart is contrasted to a flower blooming profusely, which is a rather vivid imagery that everyone is familiar with. Blooming flowers symbolize happiness in Chinese traditional culture. In English, however, there are no such cultural symbols or metaphorical phrases. It is needless to say that the marketing campaign visualizing flowers in the heart might be most certainly misinterpreted in the USA, at the same time, it might be a great fit for the Chinese audience. 

Another example is this Chinese advertisement for cigarettes. It not only shows the cultural peculiarities of the country but also uses a red paper plane that serves as a metaphor for happy news, accompanied by the phrase “Happy news, everyone in the world is happy”. In Chinese tradition, the color red is associated with good fortune, joy, and happiness, so the red paper plane’s metaphorical meaning is about bringing happy events and news.

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Pro Tip. When it comes to the usage of metaphors, consider working with native speakers and culture experts of your intended audience’s market or collaborating with trustworthy localization specialists who are the most qualified to manage the controversial topic of cross-cultural adjustment. 

These specialists can be found on freelance platforms, as they offer a wide range of services and specialists, for example Fiverr has a segment which focuses on translation specifically. There you can work with natives and ask for their advice. 

The utilization of idioms in marketing

As we are familiar now with metaphors in cross-cultural marketing, we need to discuss another closely related notion. 

An idiom is a term or a phrase the meaning of which cannot be determined from literal definitions but, instead, relates to a figurative meaning that is acquired through traditional usage.

In localisation, idioms are sometimes regarded as the hardest elements to translate. Hardly is it unexpected, given that idioms in different languages do not always have the same or similar interpretations. Some localized phrases likewise tend to communicate imagery that is inappropriate for the target market’s culture. 

Returning to the differences in concepts and metaphors in languages, let us move on to an example of an idiom that does not have any equivalents in the English language. In Chinese, there is not only a conceptual metaphor for the blooming flowers in the heart that symbolizes happiness, but there is also an idiom 心花怒放 literally — the flowers in the heart bloom. It means: ‘to burst with joy’ or ‘to be so pleased that one’s heart sang’, and the last variant is more close to the original meaning. However, still, there are no equivalents in English that would have the same imagery of a heart with blooming flowers. 

Now let us move on to the example of the marketing campaign with an idiom used as a slogan. For the iPod Shuffle, Apple used the slogan ‘Small Talk’ in English-speaking countries. 

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It was concise in the original in various languages, but it was difficult to translate in the other languages since the idiomatic expression lost its meaning and value. 

Apple redesigned and localized new taglines for different languages to transmit the same idea. The examples can be seen as follows:

  • European Spanish: Ya sabe hablar, “already knows how to talk”.
  • Latin American Spanish: Mira quién habla, or “Look who’s talking.”
  • Canadian French (Québécois): Petit parleur, grand faiseur, or “Says little, does much.”
  • French: donnez-liu de la voix, or “Let him speak.”

Pro Tips. Idioms are extremely hard to translate and, of course, simple word for word translations will not work. However, you can still turn to the specialists who localize or transcreate, just as the example with Apple shows. 

Also, Upwork offers a variety of specialists who have a degree in foreign languages and can adjust your advertisement for the target audience’s language and consult you. 

Besides, you can always search dictionaries, for example, Reverso Context is a dictionary that offers many translation options, including idioms, and puts them into context to get a better understanding of a phrase or a word.  


Cross-cultural advertising may seem almost impossible, however, the creation of a unique commercial for a large audience is still achievable because there are universal experiences that almost everyone goes through at least once in their lives. Still, most of the time some alterations have to be made during the adjustment of an advertisement for a different country.  

The goal of marketing is not only to sell a single product. You should remember who you are and what beliefs your brand stands for. Being everything to everyone is a demanding task, regardless of our hard efforts. After all, staying loyal to your brand’s values is what should guide your marketing strategy. 

Author: Victoria Yurchuk

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