– VITA Newsletter, June 2008

Bridging the Cultural Gap

Despite the fact that the world is shrinking, foreign customers are very much entrenched in their lifestyles, habits and social norms. Businesses need to understand and appreciate their international customers’ needs, expectations and values when they do business overseas. The three pillars in bridging the gap are:

  • Localizing a product/service
  • Changing the product
  • Extending a local face

Localizing a Product/Service
Any company that is interested in marketing global markets needs to partake in well thought-out research to eliminate future problems. Proctor Gamble learned through experience that its wintergreen flavor toothpaste that it launched in England after the Second World War was rejected by the British consumers because they identified wintergreen with liniment.
Global companies need to go the extra mile to understand the consumer’s latent needs along with the expressive ones to achieve success in foreign markets. For example, Nokia introduced a mobile phone with a dust-resistant keypad, anti-slip grip, and built-in flashlight for truck drivers who travel on India’s poorly lit highways.

Changing the Product
Sometimes companies have to change their entire product to make it appealing to their foreign consumers. Kraft remade their popular Oreo cookies to look like wafers in China when the executives of the company saw that the cookie-wafer segment was growing faster than traditional biscuit-like cookies. The new Chinese Oreo consisted of four layers of crispy wafer filled with vanilla and chocolate cream, coated in chocolate. Kraft’s efforts well paid off in doubling its Oreo sales in China.

Extending a Local Face
Adopting a local face in terms of distributors and managers contributes to higher success levels of global companies. For example, UPS hires foreign managers for its global operations. Hiring local managers also means the UPS values the business, and as CEO Mike Eskew stated, “Our business runs best when we empower local people and make long-term commitments.” UPS is extremely respectful of cultural differences in the country it operates. For example, many UPS offices in Thailand have Buddhist shrines, and Latin American facilities may put up pictures of Madonna.

Owners and executives of global businesses need to take into account the important ingredient of success: bridging the cultural gap before they start doing business abroad.

Ayse Oge, President of Ultimate Trade, International Trade Consulting, Speaking and Training. She can be reached oge@earthlink.net.