Cross-Cultural Marketing Communication Must Constantly Adapt

David Hagenbuch
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Key Takeaways

What? Understanding culture context is key to successful global marketing.

So what? Cultural misperceptions are more costly than ever in an age of instant and widespread communication.

Now what? Always consider culture after marketing strategy is created. Monitor culture-based attitudes and context in real time to avoid being cast as tone-deaf. 

​Aug 25, 2017

Nothing in culture is static. Why is your cross-cultural strategy?​

Almost everyone who has studied global business has heard the classic case of failed marketing communication when Chevrolet supposedly tried to sell its Nova in Mexico, forgetting that “no va” in Spanish means “doesn’t go.”

Although the alleged failure may be more fiction than fact, the inexplicable oversight is still good for a chuckle from brand managers and others who are also quick to claim they’d never make such an egregious error. 

How, then, in 2017 does a global athletic shoe maker and its U.S. partner make a cross-cultural communication mistake that much of the general populace could easily spot?

I recently received an e-mail from Fleet Feet Sports, a retailer that specializes in footwear for runners. The message contained an ad for a Finnish brand of high-performance shoes, Karhu, for which Fleet Feet is the exclusive U.S. distributor. The ad featured a large photo of a young male runner, striding confidently down a wooded road. Meanwhile, looking longingly from behind a tree was a very large grizzly bear. Atop the ad was the heading “Run with the Bear.”

If you’re thinking, “I don’t see any problem with that,” you’re probably forgetting these unfortunate news headlines that have peppered the media over the past few weeks:

For some reason, this year has seen an unusual number of high-profile bear attacks on humans. While each of these incidents was terrible, the last one involving the 16-year-old runner was especially tragic, as he lost his life doing what he loved. Ironically, both of the final two cases involved bears pursuing runners—images that are eerily similar to the Fleet Feet/Karhu ad.


In fairness to Karhu and Fleet Feet, Karhu means “bear” in Finnish, and running shoes are the firms’ specialty, so it’s natural to combine the two concepts. However, at a moment when bear attacks are grabbing top headlines and runners are specifically among the victims, it’s poor timing to employ promotion in which a bear appears to be stalking a runner.

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How does a mistake like this one happen? Karhu has a hundred-year track record of fitting the feet of runners in the U.S., and Fleet Feet is an American company headquartered in North Carolina, so the partnership clearly has cross-cultural competency. What was missed are two finer points of culture that marketers can easily overlook:

  1. Cultural is multi-dimensional. While a demographic like age is easy to measure—just ask when the consumer was born—culture is much more complex. It consists of many different variables, (e.g., food, clothing, entertainment, language, etc.) Specific events such as civil rights protests, Woodstock, and 9/11 also shape culture. Granted, the cultural impact of bear attacks is far less than that of the other examples, but those attacks are still on many people’s minds. Marketers must take those associated feelings and perceptions, whether real or imagined, into account, similar to the way seashore tourism adapted to shark fears after "Jaws" hit movie theaters in the summer of 1972.

  2. Cultural is dynamic. If news and events are part of culture, then culture must be continually changing. Of course, other aspects of culture, like food and clothing, also change over time, but the impact of current events on culture is much more immediate. For instance, when terrorist attacks occur, like the bombing of the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England,organizations and individuals adapt their behaviors almost instantly. Marketers’ strategies and tactics, in turn, must quickly reflect those new norms, whether short-term or indefinitely.

So, what can companies do to avoid such promotional gaffes? The most important thing is to not stop considering culture after strategy has been created. Instead, firms must continually monitor the cultural landscape, paying particular attention to trending news and stories that may signal shifts in consumer sentiments. Then, when such changes occur, organizations must quickly adapt their tactics accordingly.

For Fleet Feet and Karhu, this prescription doesn’t entail anything extreme, like changing the brand’s name. It just means choosing different images and text for ads—ones that don’t evoke headlines of bears pursuing people. Such simple and more culturally-attuned choices will ultimately yield more effective marketing.

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Author Bio:

David Hagenbuch
Dr. David Hagenbuch is a professor of marketing at Messiah College. He is author of Honorable Influence and the founder of
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