Off the Map: Cultural targeting

In today’s highly competitive global markets for information and consumable content, one of the greatest challenges facing both the content creators and the content distributors is the ability to reach their intended audience. While most would like to believe (perhaps too optimistically) that every human being on the planet should want and enjoy their offerings, the time-proven reality is that people clearly have cultural and regional preferences that cannot be ignored.

The profession of international marketing is rife with many examples of cultural faux pas and miscalculations that ended up as corporate disasters or at least significant setbacks for the company. Probably the best known example, at least the one I hear quoted more than any other, is the issue with the Chevy Nova automobile. As the story goes, General Motors released the Nova in Latin America, not realizing that in Spanish the translation of nova equates to “it doesn’t go” — not an ideal slogan for a car. Supposedly, this Chevy model wasn’t very successful because of the poor choice of name for the Spanish-speaking markets, but this story is mostly an urban legend that has grown over the decades to become the ultimate example of a marketing blunder. The reality is that the Nova actually was a fairly successful vehicle in Latin America, despite how its name could be interpreted.

However, when American Motors released their Matador vehicle in Puerto Rico in the early 1970s, that actually was a sensitive issue. Matador means killer in Spanish, and given Puerto Rico’s particular opposition to bullfighting (a practice that had been abolished a century earlier), the market didn’t take well to a product with that label. And how about the marketing blunder in 2002 when the Cadbury chocolate company released a campaign in India for a chocolate bar called Temptations. In the advertisements for the candy bar, a colorful map of India and its states were displayed, and the entire Jammu and Kashmir region in the far north was colored bright red. What’s worse is that this region contained the phrase “Too good to share” in an attempt to draw a parallel between their confection and the highly disputed region that’s been the subject of a few wars and many casualties over the decades. This inflamed sensitivities over the issue and caused significant backlash, and it didn’t help the situation that the perpetrator was a British company, the United Kingdom being the former colonial power in India.

But reaching a local market entails far more than marketing. More importantly, most global companies understand that to truly tailor to a consumer and build a long-term relationship, the products themselves need to reflect a consideration of local expectations and values. Obviously the process of targeting a specific culture requires not only a careful examination of the linguistic issues, but also a much broader understanding of the cultural context, including the variables of faith, politics, history, ethnicities and so on. This is where the process of culturalization — not just localization — becomes especially relevant, and particularly the need for proactive culturalization.

While reactive culturalization involves removing potentially offensive or sensitive elements, proactive culturalization consists of making content more meaningful and relevant for local consumers. It’s a more time-intensive and research-dependent phase of content development yet the potential return on the investment can be significant. We’re not talking only about language but about tailoring at a more fundamental level, so that consumers may perceive the products as being something “local” in nature or at least very locally relevant. Adding greater meaning to content enhances the image of the supplying company; that is, it is perceived as really understanding that particular market and in the best case scenario, the consumers don’t even realize that the product was not produced in-country.

Sometimes the cultural targeting is relatively easy to achieve, as it may require just some minor revisions or additions to greatly escalate the perceived value. Several years back, I was working on a productivity software suite and at the time, the symbol for the currency of Nigeria, the naira  N=(   ) was not present in the software. The general manager of the Nigerian subsidiary pointed this out and said that if the naira symbol was added to the financial components of the software, this simple act would be a tremendous win for the company in the Nigerian market. At the time, no other software was allowing for the naira symbol to appear. Unfortunately, the initial reaction from the company’s headquarters at the time was that the feature request was too late in the product cycle and that the market was not “significant” enough to justify the change. How shortsighted! Thankfully the symbol eventually did get added, but with a potentially lost opportunity. Again, targeting a local culture isn’t just about well-crafted marketing campaigns; in fact, more importantly it’s about giving the people what they really need.

It’s fair to point out, however, that targeting a specific culture may not always result in a product or content that will be considered ideal. As the saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” and I’ve seen several cases over the years where companies conceived of a plan to reach a specific demographic, but their execution was really off the mark.

As an example, I was asked a few years ago to consult on a video game concept that was intended to appeal specifically to Native Americans — an admirable goal for an underserved demographic. On the surface, the high-level idea was fresh and plausible. However, once the details of the execution plan were specified along with preliminary artwork and plot details, it quickly became evident that this idea was not only not going to work, but it would likely result in being explicitly offensive to the very target audience it was hoping to serve. For example, one key problem was using a symbol considered sacred to some Native American tribes as a protagonist; by analogy, this would be like using a crucifix or Star of David as an actual character in a game. Needless to say, the project was discontinued because the core idea was unredeemable and too much budget had already been spent on the concept stage.

One of the benefits of living in an information society is that we can know better, because we have a plethora of data, research and ready access to people around the globe. There are many companies that specialize in market research and demographics, and many social scientists who are increasingly being leveraged by technology and content companies to fill the crucial knowledge gap required by culturalization. The trend is improving but it still requires firms to pause and carefully consider the end goal of their product push. Every company wants to maximize its sales, but the better companies today realize that you can no longer brute force products into a market.

Ultimately the process of cultural targeting is one that requires additional expenditures of time and resources. To really do it well, companies must make a long-term commitment to first change the fundamental way they develop, meaning that they must design their products in such a way to make the tailoring of locale-specific content easy and flexible. Once this foundation is established, along with a development pipeline that allows for locale-specific input during the creative process (such as leveraging user research and demographics), the company will discover the true freedom to design, develop and target content for virtually any culture or market.