Digital across cultures: superglobal or hyperlocal?

Elliot Polak, founder and CEO of Textappeal, says brands must think carefully about how they adapt digital marketing to suit different cultures globally.

Elliot Polak
Elliot Polak

The simultaneous global and local nature of digital is well documented and mostly, understood. The positive implications that digital can have on a global brand is valued. But the ever-present threat that digital poses for the international marketing scene has received surprisingly little attention.

By changing the way consumers engage with brands, digital also alters the way brands need to think about crossing the barriers of markets, culture and language. Why?

The main reason is because there is an instant global spread: what happens here goes there

Unlike bad behaviour in Las Vegas, the thrilling, terrifying and potentially dangerous position that digital holds is that no matter where it starts, it goes everywhere without delay.

Based on the “Waterslide” TV commercial that Barclaycard used to excite its UK customer base, the “Waterslide Extreme” mobile game became the number one free iPhone app in 57 countries, including America, Germany, Canada, France, Spain and Japan. This happened within two weeks of its launch.

The instant global spread effect is one of the most exhilarating and revolutionary aspects of digital marketing. It allows outstanding campaigns to go forth, spread and multiply, from any point on the map. It also provides international marketing directors with the unique opportunity to leverage local talent and grow culturally-specific ideas.

Global spread does not mean that people have lost the connection to their roots or local culture. On the contrary the concept of local, on the internet, is bigger ever before, with small communities, groups and clusters of people all celebrating different values and beliefs. If anything, consumers are more sensitive to any perception of cultural inappropriateness than in the pre-internet era. For example:

– A global fast-food giant uses a comic Mexican dwarf to advertise a new, spicy burger in Spain. The local Mexican ambassador protests. News of disrespect is instantly blogged through Mexico and the US Latino community, one of the brand’s core markets. The story is featured in mainstream news. Home market sales go down.

– A global youth brand launches an app that uses satellite technology to zap virtual craters near the user. It creates instant panic in Tokyo, where the laser beam relentlessly attacks the revered Emperor’s Palace.

– To get the full benefits of instant global spread, key marketing ideas should be systematically culture-checked and validated for the brand’s core markets; even if the ideas are not digital, even if they are not initially intended for that market.

Putting these into context, here are some theoretical examples of how to do this:

In Turkey, a young lady auctions off her ex-boyfriend’s possessions on the national equivalent of e-bay. The video gets 5 million hits, a testament to how women are challenging the traditional male-female status quo in this social media savvy market.

Local culture is not fixed. Some of the most successful interactive campaigns tap into ever evolving local market micro-trends. Digital allows for precise “hyperlocal” adjustment to communities.

Edgy content that would be culturally inacceptable in traditional media can be used to good effect online. You can bend the rules, for example how would you sell lingerie to women in Saudi Arabia?

In another example of hyperlocal adjustment, the Danish lingerie and swimwear brand Change pokes fun at censorship laws in the most conservative Middle-East market, Saudi Arabia. Local Saudi law dictates that Western magazines arrive with black felt tip marks over images that are considered too revealing.

Using headlines such as “censor anything but the bikini” and “edit anything but the bra”, Change ensures that the whole body of a model is covered up with marker pens except the hands and face.

What might have been banned for above-the-line usage is turned into an online and in-store success.

So what are the nuts and bolts to this? How else can you safeguard your brand and protect your brand proposition? How can you avoid local tarnish and maximize your global consumer base? Guidelines include:

– Optimise local language keywords. Because words can get lost in translation, they generate different search results in different markets.

– Register foreign domains. In 2009, domain name extensions became available in non-roman characters such as Arabic and Chinese. Brands that translate and register their name into local characters get more hits. Check that you don’t choose characters which have an unintended meaning (such as the infamous car model name that became “death” in China).

– Adjust copy length and style. As many languages are longer than English, an outstanding website can easily turn into an approximate local version with incorrect line breaks and repetitive wording. Don’t just translate; rewrite locally in short, crisp language.

– Think local. An eye tracking study demonstrates that online pages in Chinese are viewed differently from pages in English. To achieve maximum results, interactive content needs to be designed differently for China.

Digital interactivity is simultaneously superglobal and hyperlocal. It turns global brands into local communities. It gives local ideas instant global scope. But it does not eliminate local market differences and it unscrupulously punishes those brands who fail to understand said differences. Evidence shows that the better a brand understands its customers’ local cultural triggers, the more likely it will be able to profit from digital marketing’s unique cross-market potential.

This article is an extract of “Digital Marketing Across Cultures”, a global report by Textappeal to be released June 2010. The report features best practice examples from around the world. It is based on systematic interrogation of 100 of Textappeal’s local strategists and copywriters in 50 markets.



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