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picture representing diversity in vogue magazine

‘Racist’ Photoshoot puts the Spotlight on Vogue

  |   CultureShocks Blog

Diversity and inclusion are two topics that are frequently brought up in today’s societal conversations.

As the dialogue around these topics grows, some brands have come out in support of these cultural issues while others are taking a lot of heat for their failed marketing attempts at highlighting the beauty in diversity.


The News

In the March edition of US Vogue, the magazine elected to centre the issue on diversity. The publication – which featured Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid, and plus-sized model Ashley Graham on its cover – touted a six page spread of Karlie Kloss dressed as a Geisha.

The photos span a variety of scenes in which Kloss sports a kimono-esque dress and Geisha-themed hair, makeup and shoes. In one photo, Kloss is positioned next to a sumo wrestler while in others she can be seen descending the stairs of a tea house.

vogue diversity kloss as a gueisha

The featurette, entitled ‘Spirited Away’, was shot in Japan and was likely an homage to Richard Avedon’s 1966 Vogue shoot.

Shortly after the shoot, Mikael Jansson, the photographer, published one of the images on his Instagram page (which has now been removed) and the internet backlash began.

Users all over Twitter, Instagram, and other social networks began lambasting Kloss and Vogue for ‘cultural appropriation’ and ‘whitewashing’ while other people called the shoot outright ‘racist’.

Many users also pointed out the irony that Kloss received a full six pages, whereas the two models of colour were featured in only a single image each.

While Vogue has yet to make a statement about the controversy, Kloss has since taken to Twitter to issue an apology by stating:

“These images appropriate a culture that is not my own and I am truly sorry for participating in a shoot that was not culturally sensitive. My goal is, and always will be, to empower and inspire women. I will ensure my future shoots and projects reflect that mission.”

Tensions are still running high about the issue, making this a prime example of a brand not doing its due diligence by obtaining cultural insights.


Behind the News

This is not the first time that Vogue has caused contention and decent in its 120 year history.

In 2011, Vogue was on the receiving end of a lot of hate mail after the Italian Vogue website published a feature entitled ‘Slave Earrings’. One year prior to this incident, in 2010, Vogue Italia attempted to glamourise the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico by featuring models adorned in feathers and netting while covered in oil. Or how about the time in 2009 when French Vogue featured Dutch supermodel Lara Stone in blackface?

diversity in advertising water and oil

One thing is for certain: Vogue is not afraid of controversy.

In spite of Vogue’s best efforts, the brand seems oblivious to the fact that this whole mess could have been avoided entirely by actually supporting diversity and hiring a Japanese model for the shoot.

Instead of choosing to embrace diversity, they chose instead a popular route in entertainment: hiring a white person to portray an individual from another culture.

matt damon the great wall vogue diversity

Either Vogue made a research error, or chose to stir up some controversy. While we don’t know if any of the hoopla has been intentional, they have certainly landed in the spotlight. If that translates to more magazines sold, then it’s doubtful there are any regrets.

Regardless, by failing to understand such culturally charged matters, it has created another calamity that reflects poorly on its brand and will serve as a vehicle for damaging its sales and reputation long term.

When travelling the world for business negotiations, creating social media posts that involve other countries, and drafting other culturally-driven materials for publication, it is absolutely vital to understand that country’s customs and culture before making a brand look insensitive.

Vogue has impressive longevity, so they are doing many things right. But considering its extensive track record of producing ‘tone-deaf’ publications, this long-standing magazine mainstay would likely engender a lot more loyalty and credibility if they genuinely honored diversity.

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tips for a successful cross cultural marketing campaign

5 Tips for Launching a Successful Cross-Cultural Marketing Campaign

  |   CultureShocks Blog

Marketing in general is an extremely challenging practice. Virtually every niche is saturated with competitors vying for consumer attention and dollars.

To successfully have your brand’s voice heard, one must develop the right marketing messages, craft compelling and useful content, build a highly-active and engaged social following, and deploy modern marketing tactics that are capable of driving results.

When a brand makes the move to expand its horizons and enter the global marketplace, those challenges become exponentially more complex and strenuous.

Localising content, products, and brand presence requires a keen attention to detail in regards to cultural nuances, habits, restrictions, and relationships.

The ultimate goal is for materials to be so effectively localised that consumers feel as if the company is actually based in their region. This, however, is far easier said than done.


For example, when the Nestlé-owned baby food manufacturer Gerber entered the African market, the company elected to use the same imagery as it does in the U.S.

Their label, which features a baby, did not go over so well in Africa as many of its residents cannot read. Because of this, their consumers are used to package images depicting what is contained inside the package. In this case, a baby wasn’t accurate, understood, or well received.


All companies – small and large – are susceptible to this kind of blunder; that’s why we’ve compiled these 5 brand necessities for going international.


1: Begin with a Brief

marketing brief

At the beginning of your campaign assembly, it is vital to construct a brief which details the goals of the foray, who the target audience is and their defining attributes, and the tone and characteristics of the marketing materials that will be deployed.

Additionally, the brief should include information on the territories your brand aims to target, the languages in which materials will be translated, and which marketing channels will be leveraged.

This document will serve as a means to record the campaign’s requirements as well as an information delivery system to integrate other parties and providers into the fold in expedient fashion.

All of the outlined materials in the brief should be backed by extensive research and data, otherwise, your campaign is in jeopardy.


2: Study Cultural Specifics

study cultural specifics

Understanding cultural differences is absolutely critical to a successful campaign as each region has its own specific challenges, colloquialisms, and lifestyle habits. Even the largest brands can fail overseas if they do not delve deeply into cultural norms.


Soda giant Pepsi is one such brand. The company actually lost its lead in the South East Asian market when it changed its vending machines from deep blue to light blue. Pepsi was unaware that light blue correlates with death and mourning in the area, and they caused serious damage to their brand image with this small but impactful shift.


For this reason, cultural awareness needs to permeate through every single aspect of a campaign; from labels to messages, even down to the brand name itself. Everything must be analysed to ensure success in a new region.


Gerber is again a prime example as its brand name translates to “vomit” in French. Considering its consistency, that likely wouldn’t go over well in France.


Colloquialisms and translations aside, brands also need to gain a deep understanding of a culture’s societal values to better understand appropriate behaviour and messages, an understanding of regional symbols, along with other entrenching aspects like weather patterns, geographic challenges, political tensions, international relations, and basically anything else that can be unearthed.

For this kind of intimate research, it is best to develop a contact within your niche that is extremely well-versed on the culture, if not a native.


3: Intent is Everything

intend is everything when it comes to transcreation

Over 72% of consumers are more likely to buy a product if advertising is in their native language. This makes proper translation critical.

Translation alone is not enough. Brands must transcreate their materials, meaning that content is translated while still retaining its intent, tone, style, and context.

This is much more challenging than it sounds as each region of the globe may have similar sayings that reflect completely different meanings. For example, The United States and Britain both speak English, however, terms like “trainer” and “braces” mean wildly different things.

Now imagine simply trying to translate an English saying into Portuguese or Arabic; things can easily come off wrong or nonsensical.

If you really want to capture that 72% of consumers, you need to sound like a local, not Google Translate.


4: Research Top Marketing Channels

research top marketing channels

It should go without saying that using the same channels of advertisement overseas may not fare as well as it does in your native marketplace.

Many regions around the globe have significant marketing disparities in the physical and digital landscape.

In today’s world, social media is one of the most meaningful marketing channels available and is a massive driver of sales, awareness, and other goals.

If your company seeks to expand its presence to China, you’ll be unpleasantly surprised to know that social networks like Facebook and Twitter are banned there; its citizens use sites like Weibo instead.

The same thing goes for search engines. Google is not dominant in all parts of the world. This means that businesses need to optimise for engines like Russia’s Yandex if they hope to be found.


5: Work with Trusted Experts

work with trusted experts

All of these obstacles can feel overwhelming if you have no connection to the region you hope to reach. This makes it a critical necessity to hire a transcreation and localisation team to help ensure that your messaging, logos, content, and all other materials are up to par for regional markets.

When shopping for such a service, be sure to take into consideration which languages the company is capable of converting, its current track record of successes/failures, its experience within your specific industry, and the types of services it is able to offer to your brand. Ideally, the selected team should be able to transcreate marketing copy, video content, and audio formats such as podcasts.


Crossing over into other regions of the globe and achieving financial success is no walk in the park. It takes a lot of research, planning, and partnerships to develop a campaign that will resonate with global audiences. But if you want to go big, global is the only option.



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Things to consider when adapting your message to the Russian market. - localisation and transcreation into russia

7 Things to Consider When Adapting Your Message to the Russian Market

  |   CultureShocks Blog

“I don’t know the rules of grammar. If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language.”

David Ogilvy


We all like this wise quote from David Ogilvy and it can’t be truer. This post is about the use of the Russian language to persuade Russian speakers to use your services or buy your products.


Why is it important to have your website and marketing materials translated into Russian?

Mainly because it is a native language of more than 170 million people. This number only refers to people using it as their first language. Imagine how it will grow if we include those who use Russian as their second language.

Do all those people live in the Russian Federation? No, of course not. As Wikipedia tells us, “Russian is an official language in Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and many minor or unrecognised territories. It is an unofficial but widely spoken language in Ukraine and Latvia, and to a lesser extent, the other countries that were once constituent republics of the Soviet Union and former participants of the Eastern Bloc… In March 2013 it was announced that Russian is now the second-most used language on the internet after English. However, Russian is the sixth-most used language on the top 1,000 sites, behind English, Chinese, French, German and Japanese.

Want to get ahead of your competition and tap into the Russian-speaking market? It’s high time to do that before others in your niche seize the opportunity.

Seems that everybody these days has heard at least something about localisation. That’s what makes your message understandable for people who don’t speak your language. However, as one of my favourite marketing professionals says, it’s not enough to just do the right things. You need to do the right things, correctly. So how do you adapt your message to the Russian market and do it right? There are a few things to consider.


1. Not. Ever. Use. Machine. Translation. You can save on anything, but not on translation and localisation. The translated content will become your voice in the target market. Do you really want to sound like Google Translate to your customers?

2. Hire localisation professionals who will:

  • Translate the content of your website
  • Adapt the currency and date format
  • Make your website searchable for the Russian search engines. Yes, we have our own search engines, with Yandex being just as popular as Google if not more. And its algorithm works differently from Google, so just translating the keywords won’t do the trick.

3. Consider the difference in calendar, public holidays, time zones etc. Getting a newsletter at 2 a.m. with a time-sensitive limited offer is kind of weird. Also, for those of you who are preparing your next big Christmas sale, our Christmas is on January 7th, not December 25th. New Year is one of the biggest holidays here, which comes before Christmas and is celebrated very widely, whereas Christmas is mainly a quiet family holiday. Valentine’s Day is not widely celebrated here, so the best time to prepare a sale for men’s products would be before February 23rd (it’s the day when we honour boys and men, and especially those who are serving or have served in the army) and for women’s products – before March 8th (Women’s Day, when we honour women of all statuses and ages).

4. Want to use SMM marketing? Then be ready to do some research and find out how your Russian-speaking audience is using social media and which social networks people use. I bet you haven’t heard about networks like vk.com or ok.ru. We do use Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, but the most popular network is still vk.com (formerly known as Vkontakte). It’s often called the clone of Facebook, but the netiquette there has some peculiarities.

5. Make sure your marketing brochures, newsletters etc. use the same terminology, same names for products and services (whether they are kept in English, translated, or transliterated etc.). Which means either sharing your translation memory with a professional who will translate your marketing materials, or hiring the same people to do everything.

6. Be ready to answer any questions about your company, your website, your services or products. We ask questions not because we are stupid, but because we care about the quality of our work, and we want to be sure we understand everything correctly. If we understand you, your customers will too.

7. Test, test, and test. The Russian text is often longer than the English, and that’s completely normal. But it may break the structure of your website or the layout of your brochure. So the only way to make sure everything works right is to test everything again and again.


You may be reading the text and thinking, “Wow, it’s going to take SO MUCH WORK!” Yes, it is. But it’s going to be worth every penny you spend. Because you will show that you care about how we think and how we feel. It will simplify the website navigation and communication, thus bringing more sales.

Do you have experience in localising anything for the Russian market? Share what you’ve learned in comments! It’s always great to learn from one another.

About the author:  Olga Arakelyan, Russian native speaker, translator, editor, transcreator, and manager of LinguaContact translation training school (the leading online translation training school in Russia!). You can find her on Twitter, or check out her English blog.


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image of pablo escobar in Puerta del Sol Madrid, Controversial Adverts

Controversial Adverts: 4 Campaigns that Caused Major Contention

  |   CultureShocks Blog

The point of all marketing pursuits is to draw attention to a product, service, or other corporate offering via persuasive advertisements. Most campaigns seek to stir emotions from the general public. Joy, anger, sorrow, humour, and other mental states, are all tools that marketers wield.

Every so often, however, advertisers concoct seemingly witty and unique materials that end up inspiring outrage, from its target audience. These controversial adverts did more than push the envelope; they effectively tore it wide open.

Here are four marketing campaigns that resulted in major controversy.


Netflix: Narcos wishes a “white Christmas” to Madrid


The News:

Narcos, one of Netflix’s flagship original series, has caused quite the ‘uproar’ in Madrid, Spain.

Early December, the streaming service’s advertising team placed a massive poster in one of the city’s busiest locations, the Puerta del Sol public square. The advert features the actor who plays the show’s main antagonist, Pablo Escobar, alongside the tag line, “Oh, Blanca Navidad,” which translates to
“Oh, white Christmas.”

The slogan for the season is a clear play on word’s, considering the nature of Escobar’s cocaine dealings, but what has the public up in arms, is the fact that Netflix’s persuasive advertising, is essentially glorifying a man, who has had a very negative impact on the region.


Behind the News:

Many of the city’s residents have taken their resentments to social media, calling out the show’s leading character as a “killer, drug dealer, and terrorist.” Furthermore, much of the distain stems from not only the exaltation of such a savage individual, but the placement of the banner as well.

Instagram user @lamadredediego posted that, “. . . thousands of families come to the capital to enjoy the bridge, the Christmas lighting and what you will find is a photo.” That horrible photo elevates of one of history’s most notorious criminals.


*edito: gracias por los comentarios y sobre todo aquellos en los que puedo ejercer de censora (creo que en otra vida lo fui) ya que me producen algo más allá del éxtasis total y más cuando vienen de la “juventud” y perfiles de 0 publicaciones 4 seguidores. Besos para todos y muuuuuchas gracias por informarme que es un actor. Yo inmersa en mi ignorancia, creía que la foto del matón en el tejado era estaba tomando el sol 🙃 En serio? Quien ha sido el genio? Y quien ha dejado que pongan esto en un punto tan importante de la cuidad? Donde este fin de semana vienen miles de familias a la capital a disfrutar del puente, de la iluminación navideña y lo que se van a encontrar es una foto de un ASESINO, NARCOTRAFICANTE, TERRORISTA. Estas series solo hacen daño a la sociedad, ya que hacen ver a una persona que hizo cosas repugnantes como un genio, un ejemplo a seguir Esta sociedad está súper intoxicada y con cosas como esta no ayudan a mejorar en nada @madrid @comunidadmadrid @cristinacifuentes @esperanzaguirre @begonavillacis deberíais hacer algo ESTO ES VERGONZOSO!!!! #navidadenmadrid #cabreomaximo #indignacion #verguenza #repugnante #puertadelsol #madrid #notodovale

A photo posted by lamadredediego (@lamadredediego) on

But while some think that television’s glorification of history’s monsters serve only to ruin society, the controversial advert was not completely shunned by Madrid residents. Many local citizens have applauded the poster and have recommended the show to those who have yet to witness it.

Despite Madrid’s divided nature over the prominently placed announcement, the billboard remains intact for the holidays.


Hyundai & Ford – Fiascos in Advertising

There are plenty of ways to craft marketing messages that get consumers interested in buying a car; the following is not the angle that we recommend.


The Killer Car Ad


The News:

In 2013, car manufacturer Hyundai released a controversial ad in Britain highlighting how environmentally friendly the IX35 crossover was. This was illustrated by depicting a failed suicide attempt when a man in his garage tapes a tube to his muffler, which is then extended into the car’s window. Due to the fact that the IX35 produced only water emissions, not noxious gases, the video was intended to be humorous.

The television spot, which was created by the company’s in-house team, Innocean, and dubbed “pipe job,” received the kind of reaction you would expect from a televised suicide attempt.


Behind the News:

Hyundai ultimately had to apologize for the botched attempt at humour and stated that, We are very sorry if we have offended anyone. We have taken the video down and have no intention of using it in any of our advertising or marketing.”


Ford’s Marketing Flub

image of a controversial Ford ad in India


The News:

In similarly poor taste, prolific auto manufacturer Ford had its own marketing gaff that same year in India, while trying to promote the company’s new hatchback, the Figo.

The controversial advert used to raise awareness about the car depicted a cartoon illustration of several curvaceous women tied up and gagged in the back of the car. The reasoning behind the half-baked marketing scheme was to show off the spacious nature of the vehicle.


Behind the News:

Unfortunately for Ford, they had not done their research, as at that time India was experiencing a massive influx of tragic sex crimes, including the vicious gang rape of a 23 year-old student.

The public’s reaction to Ford’s message, and its variations, was harshly criticized and just.

Shortly after, Ford pulled the controversial ads and issued an apology stating, “We deeply regret this incident and agree with our agency partners that it should have never happened.”

This is a classic case of companies who paid the price for not properly researching regional tensions, before pulling the trigger on marketing materials.


Humans for Animals Hullabaloo

The advertisement gives the impression that animal rights activists would sooner kill a baby human than a seal pup - controversial adverts


The News:

Some marketing messages are rather candid about their intent to shock; and that has it’s time and place. Humans for Animals, a European PETA-like organization, completely missed the mark with their controversial advert, however, and it serves as a warning to others embarking into controversy.

In collaboration with ad agency TBWA Paris, Humans for Animals devised a campaign which sought to reverse the role of animals and people to get its point across.

In the now infamous Photoshopped image, a seal holds a club as it stands over a bloody and beaten baby. The imagery was accompanied by the grammatically incorrect tag line of, Don’t treat others the way you don’t want to be treated.”


Behind the News:

While the company’s efforts were noble, their less-than persuasive advertisement was nothing short of grotesque and inspired wide-spread indignation.

Today, Humans for Animals is defunct, in part, due to the ineffective nature of its advertising.

While things like shock, humor, and glorification all serve as essential tools in marketing, there is certainly a time and place for them. Moreover, using such powerful weapons requires that a brand conduct proper research into the region the materials target, so as not to infuriate the intended audience.


Marketing mishaps such as these, serve as a reminder to advertisers that there is a very fine line between shocking and offensive. Each of these controversial adverts crossed that line, and in one instance, it contributed to the death of the organization.

Marketers beware, antagonistic adverts can have the impact you are looking for, or they can blow up in your face; the key is not pushing the envelope beyond the point of general decency.

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image of people raising the arm iceland sues the iceland supermarket. Brand identity crisis

4 Brands with Creative Names that Backfired in Big Ways.

  |   CultureShocks Blog

Choosing a brand name that is intriguing yet relevant is vital to a corporation’s future. This is to become the company’s hallmark; their brand identity.

Some organisations tout extremely clever and unique calling cards that represent the brand, its personality, and the services it offers flawlessly. Most brands, however, end up engineering a title that fits the company, but perhaps lack a certain amount of zest and intrigue. And then there are those that thought they had artfully shaped an ingenious name worthy of the world’s attention, but had actually concocted a recipe for outrage.

As these businesses have learned, it is highly advisable to have specialists provide feedback and clearance to any carefully crafted brand identities you wish to bestow upon your company to avoid public backlash, legal disputes, or to minimise customer resonance.

Check out these organisations whose names inspired significant outrage from the general public.


Iceland, the Supermarket




When most people hear the word ‘Iceland’, their first thought isn’t typically that of a grocer. One food retailer that carries the name is trying to change that, however, and has subsequently landed in some proverbial hot water.

Due to the fact that the British frozen foods dealer has been blocking local companies from using the word ‘Iceland’ to describe themselves, and has gone as far as pursuing – and winning – legal arguments over the matter, the Icelandic government has stepped in, taking legal action of its own.

The actions of the supermarket has affected many smaller businesses such as Clean Iceland or Iceland Gold, a fish supplier, who have both tried (and failed) to register their company names with the EU.

These kinds of shady practices have caused the Icelandic government to intervene after multiple attempts to negotiate and reason with the organisation, only to be met with ‘unrealistic and unacceptable’ expectations.

As of now, the grocer owns the European trademark to the word in question, but the Icelandic government believes the brand identity to be, ‘… exceptionally broad and ambiguous in definition, often rendering the country’s businesses unable to describe their products as Icelandic’. They therefore seek to strip the company of its trademark.

While the dispute is still ongoing, the supermarket’s PR representatives have taken to Twitter to post a series of tweets that clearly display that the company is not taking the matter seriously.


The grocer has been operating under the name for some time now, but has only garnered the negative attention after ownership changed hands and began aggressively pursuing any company that attempted to utilise its trademark.


Two Taquerias, One Bad Decision


bandidos restaurant changed its name to echo, to preserve brand identity


Restaurants, in particular, are in need of creative names that reflect their offerings so that potential customers know what they serve. One Mexican-style eatery in San Francisco thought they had devised such a sobriquet, but ended up biting off more than they could chew.

In its first week of operation, the restaurant had to change its name, Bandidos, due to objections from the Mexican-American community as bandido refers to an outlaw, or bandit, and is seen as defamatory by those of Mexican heritage.

Those who were unhappy with the establishment’s choice sounded off on its Facebook page with a plethora of comments.

bandidos restaurant change its name by echo to preserve brand identity

Shortly thereafter, the company’s owners, Jesse Woodward and Dana Gleim, took to social media to explain that they had not intended to offend or demean anyone and would be changing the name of the eatery to ‘Hecho’, which means ‘made’, as in ‘made in Mexico’.

In Arizona, another Mexican-style restaurant owner came under fire from a student group, Movimento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlan, for its name, ‘Illegal Pete’s’.

The body of students wrote a letter to the eatery’s owner, urging him to change the name and informing him of the chain’s offensive nature. Additionally, a change.org petition was started to have the restaurant change its name or be banned from conducting business in Tucson, Arizona.

Despite the fact that Illegal Pete’s had been operating in Boulder, Colorado since 1995, the owner heard the complaints of the people, yet elected not to change the name because of the personal history that it holds for him. The owner, Pete, even went as far as to dedicate a page of the Illegal Pete’s website to explaining the controversy and the history behind the name.

The lesson here is that when choosing a brand name, it is best to stray from titles that could be construed as culturally insensitive.


Candy Crushed


ayds the candy was confused by aids, therefore the brand name changed preserve brand identity

Despite these poor naming decisions, there have been several instances when it was not the company’s fault for owning a bad brand label; time had merely turned the tables on them.

Back in the 1970’s and early 80’s, a hot, ‘appetite-suppressing’ candy was sold all over the U.S. It came in various flavours and was a smash hit success as one of the most sought after weight-loss products on the market in the 70’s. The name of the candy was Ayds. Yes, Ayds.

In 1981 when AIDS began to enter public consciousness, company CEO, Robert Berglass, thought that it was a small enough incident to be inconsequential to the brand’s wellbeing.

Fast forward to 1987, when the AIDS epidemic was in full swing, Mr. Berglass had changed his tune, stating, “Obviously, with a name like Ayds, we’ll have to do some re-marketing”. 

The company devised a solution to save the company’s reputation by renaming the product to Diet Ayds.

The plan was obviously half-baked and shortly thereafter, the company crumbled into obscurity.


A similar fate befell another popular chocolate delight that had been in production since 1923. All had been going well for the oganisation until a terrorist group that shared a name with the sweet treat began to emerge. That group (and the candy), is of course, Isis.


ISIS Chocolates: Belgian Chocolate Maker Changes Name To ‘Libeert’ To Avoid Confusion With Militant Group

Because of the damaging effects of the unintended association with the group, the company opted to drop the name in late 2014 for something more favourable; Libeert.

While forsaking a recognised brand name can often result in devastation for a corporation, in this instance, there was nothing that could be done and it did ultimately work out for the better.


Creating a brand identity and choosing a brand name is important. What is more important, however, is public perception of your business. If an organisation decides to go forth with a name that is unknowingly offensive, derogatory, or distasteful, the owners are likely to hear about it from the community. They will make their voices heard, not only through outlets like social media, but with their wallets as well.

For these reasons, it is essential that newly formed businesses consult branding specialists before rolling the dice on their new company name.

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world map with flags showing culture shocks from around the world

Business Etiquette Across the Globe: How to Navigate the Culture Shock

  |   CultureShocks Blog

The world continues to become a smaller place as digital technologies transcend oceans and dissolve borders, allowing corporations to forge international relationships and partnerships that would otherwise have been missed opportunities.

These modern-day miracles do not come without their complications, however, as business etiquette can greatly differ from region to region. Culture shocks from around the world can often lead to potential business associates embarrassing themselves and completely botching deals.

These mistakes come in many forms, whether it be an improper greeting, social media conundrums, or producing inadvertently disrespectful marketing materials; this makes it vitally important to have a keen understanding and perception of local business customs.

In an effort to help business leaders avoid succumbing to cultural formality mishaps, here are some of the most prominent business culture shocks from around the world.


International Styles of Communication


International globe with hands showing culture shocks around the world

Proper communication is the basis of every relationship, business or otherwise, and needs to be effectively managed. If a company representative is unaware of a certain territory’s style of conversation or negotiation, it could be detrimental to the way foreign business leaders view them and their brand.

In American culture, it is considered normal to ask about a business prospect’s day and ‘how they are doing’. This is often viewed as a way of showing that they are interested in both the personal well-being of an individual and of their business. Countries like Spain are also quite receptive to discussing personal matters as family and relationships are highly valued.

In the United Kingdom, however, delving into more intimate exchanges is somewhat frowned upon. Additionally, these folks are less inclined to retain eye contact during a dialogue; a tendency which would be considered disrespectful in the States.

Similarly, countries like Germany and Japan are all about business. Asking personal or emotional questions to business colleagues in Japan is inappropriate and makes one look foolish.

More than just the type of questions that are asked, it is also necessary to be mindful of the verbosity that is used. In places like Japan and India, the word ‘no’ is viewed as rude and disrespectful; it is best to use phrases like ‘maybe’ or ‘possibly’.

Body language also plays a huge role in international business communications. Much as the Brits have no time for ‘niceties’ around personal conversation, they also prefer their personal space, similar to Americans and Chinese business people. If corporate dealings are taken to Brazil, however, you may be in for a bit of a culture shock as Brazilians are accustomed to physical contact during conversations. It is seen as a sign of trust between business partners, so they may end up standing closer than what feels comfortable for some; take this as a good sign.

Navigating the conversational terrain can be tricky business so it is best to study the practices of the place you will be visiting as well as learn some of the countries phrases.


The Art of an On-Time Arrival


The Art of an On-Time Arrival

Punctuality is another valued trait in American culture. If an individual is late to an important meeting, they are viewed as disrespectful and unreliable.

Business folk in Germany and Australia share a similar viewpoint. These people are extremely hard workers and their time is perceived to be valuable. If you are late for a meeting in Germany, you may have jeopardized the deal. While these cultures value punctuality, this is not the case in other parts of the globe.

In Italy, punctuality is more of a casual ideal. In this part of the world, meetings frequently get off to a late start. If there are any hard deadlines that must be satisfied, be sure to make this clear to avoid coming off as boorish.

France and India are similar in this regard, as things can typically be delayed due to a late arrival. Despite this, staying late is a common practice.

The same can be said for business meetings in Brazil; they may get started late, but often can last longer than expected. To avoid being seen as rude or disinterested, be sure not to excuse yourself early.

On the other hand, places like Morocco, Nigeria, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia place zero importance on early or punctual arrival at meetings. In most of these countries, it is completely acceptable to arrive 30 minutes or more ‘late’ to a meeting. In Saudi Arabia, it’s even considered rude to look at one’s watch during conversation.

As a best practice, avoid tardiness no matter what area of the world you are in. It is better to play it safe than to risk offending a potential business partner.


Global Gift Giving Formalities


international gift etiquette. person giving a present with both hands

Another culture shock from around the world comes in the form of gifts. Supplying a business acquaintance with a gift is perceived differently in different cultures, and even the types of gifts that are given could be misconstrued.

For example, it would seem appropriate and somewhat obvious to give a watch as a business gift. In China, however, this represents death. Additionally, black, blue, and white wrapping paper should always be avoided. When giving a gift in China, present it with both hands, as is customary.

In Japan, this courtesy is expected but also needs to be presented properly. It is rude to attempt to give a gift that is unwrapped. It is also advisable to carry the offering in a bag to avoid appearing to show off. Moreover, gifts should be discreetly presented toward the closure of a meeting and presented with both hands, as is done in China. Some great items to give would include cuff links or high-quality alcohols like cognac or brandy.

Places like France and Italy are less enthusiastic about presents. In these countries, gifts are typically only exchanged after business partnerships have long been established.

In the United Kingdom, gifts are not typically given. The only scenarios this takes place in is when visiting someone’s home; in which case, bring a small gift, like flowers, for the hostess.

Saudi Arabia, however, has a very different stance on gifts. For these folks, exchanges only occur between extremely close colleagues and are often extravagant items. Be wary, however, as if the present is for a Saudi man, gold and silk would not be acceptable; silver is much more appropriate.

No matter which country you are headed to, it is important to understand what role gifts play in their culture and what type should be offered. It would be awfully awkward and potentially disastrous not to present a gift to someone who is expecting one.


Conducting business with foreign partners can be a complex and intricate dance. It is necessary to properly research ethics and rituals, learn a bit of the language, and properly understand the customs of the region. Culture shocks from across the world vary greatly from region to region and should be respected and honoured. If you fail to show esteem, grace, and reverence towards individuals in a land foreign to your own, your chances of gaining a new business partner are greatly diminished.

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Will Google’s New Approach to Translation Make Agencies Redundant?

  |   CultureShocks Blog

Google says its new artificial intelligence powered translation tool scores nearly the same as human translators. Does this mean that translation and transcreation agencies are no longer relevant in 2016?  


Google Translate supports 103 languages and generates one billion transactions by over 200 million people every day. It processes daily quantities of translation that surpass what the world’s professional translators manage in a year. The facts and figures are extraordinary, but anyone who used Google Translate in the past will know that it often wasn’t that accurate. It relied on individually translating words and phrases that produced mixed results and struggled with the intricacies of complex changes like Chinese to English. Even Google admitted that its Phrase-Based Machine Translation (PBMT) service wasn’t good enough to be used to power single websites in multiple languages.


Technology that learns from its mistakes

However, things have just changed. Google’s latest version of Translate uses new techniques reliant on artificial intelligence (AI) for vastly improved results. Google Neural Machine Translation (GNMT) is based on the science that is used to build computer systems which imitate biological neural networks in humans and other animals. Such systems learn to make decisions through feedback in the same way that we do. You may have come across similar technologies before – they allow Facebook’s image recognition software to identify individual faces, virtual personal assistants

The bottom line for those who use the GNMT? In some of Google’s human-rated and side-by-side tests, GNMT approaches the accuracy achieved by average bilingual human translators and reduces translation errors by 60% compared to Google’s old PBMT system.

translation tool artificial intelligence


Subtlety, nuance and creativity a machine can never match

Such compelling technology and results might lead you to wonder if there’s still a place for professional human translation. Artificial intelligence has certainly brought Google Translate a step closer to human translation but for critical communications, a machine may struggle to ensure that words are interpreted by the target audience as intended. A machine might miss the nuance that a native speaker and translator will intrinsically feel. A machine won’t easily know when a different approach might be needed to make a point creatively, clearly and persuasively enough to truly engage a reader. And a machine could miss the overall intent and feel of your text due to focussing on the details.


The role of language service providers

The role of Language Service Providers, be they translation or transcreation agencies, can never be obsolete, as they have the best access to a wide network of language professionals who are well-equipped to interpret and create outstanding, industry-changing campaigns for their markets. No technology, however advanced, can match or surpass the eloquence, accuracy or cultural insight that a team of (human) copywriters will bring to the table – no brand will ever be able to rely on technology alone to enhance their influence on any target audience. Furthermore, it will take a miraculous technology to match the ability of human translators and copywriters who have their finger on the pulse of the rising and waning trends in their market and specific industries, as well as taking into account any current social and political trends that may affect a global campaign.


Nearly human, but not really human

Overall, Google’s new tools are  very helpful. For day-to-day work that isn’t too important, they compare very favourably to human translation. But what they’ll never be is actually human. And you can only communicate like a human if you are human.


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Top 4 Soft Skills for Cross-Cultural Marketing

  |   CultureShocks Blog

Today there is much talk about the importance of soft skills. Be it at the start of one’s career or in a position of leadership, soft skills are necessary to succeed. In fact, in the Bloomberg 2016 Skills Report, recruiters were asked which skills they wanted most and an overwhelming focus was put on soft skills!


What are Soft Skills?

Soft skills are simply the less tangible qualities people possess. This includes one’s strengths and weaknesses, one’s personality traits and characteristics and one’s attitude. Typically, soft skills are learned through experiences and interaction as opposed to technical knowledge that is often gained through direct teaching. There’s no doubt that soft skills play a very important role in career matters. Even as the world becomes more digitised with face-to-face interaction cut to the minimum due to developments such as email, social media etc., basic soft skills are necessary to succeed in any job. In a field like global marketing that involves everything from meeting people from various backgrounds, travelling to new countries, to being truly immersed in a culture at its base level, having a set of certain soft skills at one’s disposal is especially handy. Here are the four top cross-cultural soft skills that a global marketer should aim to perfect.


1. Communication

Stellar communication skills are critical so as to interact professionally with people from different cultures and backgrounds. This doesn’t mean being an accomplished writer or a brilliant orator. Having good communication skills consists of being able to coherently express oneself, from writing a memo to giving a persuasive presentation. The role of communication is exponentially important in a cross-cultural setting where there may be innate language barriers already in place. In this way, one should be able to communicate effectively and efficiently so that all parties are on the same page, regardless of cultural differences. Since people from different cultures have very different communication styles, it is important to quickly pick up on said style so as to gain an appreciative audience. In an article on the BBC, Erin Meyer, a professor at INSEAD business school in Fontainbleau, France, who specialises in cross-cultural management, tells the story of a French employee who was recently relocated to the US. “Her boss informed her that her performance needed to change. But because he delivered the negative feedback by expounding first on what he appreciated about her work – and she was generally unaccustomed to receiving positive feedback – she floated out of the meeting thinking it had gone well,” said Meyer. This is an example of failed cross-cultural communication, where the objective wasn’t conveyed or understood well, highlighting the importance of better communication skills.



2. Adaptability

Being adaptable is a key soft skill in the realm of global marketing. According to Lynne Sarikas, MBA Career Center Director at Northeastern University, “To succeed in most organisations, you need to have a passion for learning and the ability to continue to grow and stretch your skills to adapt to the changing needs of the organisation.” In a field like marketing, this is even truer. Marketing campaigns are constantly changing and evolving, even more so when marketing moves to a global scale. Due to the everyday dynamism of cultures, anyone engaged in cross-cultural marketing must be adaptable and open-minded to succeed. Furthermore, being adaptable to any sort of environment is extremely useful when having to deal with culture shocks that arise from moving to a new country for work. Consider this example given by Gayle Cotton, now president of Circles Of Excellence Inc, from when she first started working at the United Nations in Geneva in the early 90s. Cotton answered a phone call with a regular “Hello, how are you?” Her seemingly normal greeting was met with a curt response, “That’s none of your business. Now what I want to talk about is…” As Cotton recalls, “it wasn’t personal, the caller, a Swiss German, wanted to get down to business, and the personal element was irrelevant.” This sort of minor culture shock was handled easily by Cotton, who simply adapted to the Swiss norms of phone protocol – she began answering her phone with just her last name, emulating her colleagues in Geneva.



3. Listening and Awareness

Even though listening may not seem like much of a “skill”, it is something surprisingly few people actually excel at. Listening as a cross-cultural soft skill doesn’t entail just hearing people talk. Rather, it consists of hearing, understanding and processing so that one is able to make informed decisions. Paired with listening is the ability to be constantly aware of one’s surroundings. Within the spectrum of cross-cultural marketing, it is vital to listen so as to understand the intricacies of different cultures. An added bonus comes in the form of language gains – by listening intently and being observant, local jargon as well as non-verbal cues are learnt. Similarly, being aware of the surrounding environment can give insights into cultures that mere indirect research might not. Consider the example of Airbnb’s global campaign that continues to shine. By actively paying attention to colloquial ways of speaking, Airbnb was able to incorporate their findings into localised websites. Today, Airbnb has websites that cater to specific forms of the same language. Depending on the language of preference, Airbnb translates spellings (for example, American English versus British English) and colloquial terms and usages (changing, say, “vacation” to “holiday”) depending on the country version of the site. Airbnb’s success is a great example to show how attention to detail does indeed pay off.


4. Creativity

Urban studies theorist Richard Florida wrote in his book ‘The Rise of the Creative Class’, “What powers economic growth? It’s not technology – technology is a raw material. What makes human beings unique is one thing – creativity. are subsets.” These words bear testament to the power of creativity as a soft skill. Creativity encapsulates many forms – from creative thinking in a more traditional and artistic manner to creative problem solving. Cross-cultural campaigns come with their fair share of challenges, and more often than not, traditional thinking doesn’t lead to the solution. Rather, thinking outside the box, or tackling a task from a different perspective yields much better results – and this is where the ability to be creative in any situation that requires it, is a great cross-cultural soft skill to hone.

While having knowledge of international marketing is of immense importance, honing the above cross-cultural soft skills is also essential to succeed as a global marketing maverick. Technical know-how will get one far, but it is great communication, an ability to quickly adapt, listen, pay attention to detail as well as be holistically creative that leads to true success!

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