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Culture and Why it Matters to Your Business

By Guest Author Cheryl Rettig of wintranslation.

What is one of the most often overlooked elements in a company’s international marketing strategy that can determine the success or failure of a product or service in overseas markets? The answer is one word – culture. Forget or trivialize this important ingredient, and your marketing campaign or website runs the risk of failing to attract potential buyers at best, or at worst, alienating or offending millions of people.

Keep reading to learn why culture is so important to the financial success of your company and how it should impact the decisions you make, your interactions with customers, your advertising strategies, and your website localization.

Case Study: Lack of Cultural Awareness and Sensitivity

In 2003, an Xbox game received an extremely vocal and negative reaction due to religious content deemed offensive. Kakuto Chojin: Back Alley Brutal, developed by Dream Publishing and published by Microsoft Game Studios, contained verses from the Qur’an chanted in the background. Since the majority of Muslims believe the Qur’an should be handled with the utmost respect as it is the literal word of God, there was considerable outrage among many groups for the perceived lack of deference afforded to the Qur’an in the Xbox game. As a result, the game was recalled and the companies involved alienated many potential customers and experienced a loss of sales.

If Dream Publishing and Microsoft Game Studios had taken the time to conduct the necessary research and if they had understood the importance of culture when selling a product or service in foreign markets, then this situation could have been avoided. They would have realized the importance of Islam to many people throughout the Middle East and they would have been able to tailor the game when selling to that particular market.

What is Culture?

Culture is multifaceted and comprised of many different elements that have been passed down for generations, including knowledge, belief systems, experiences, values, attitudes, religion, art, ideas, laws, morals, customs, and ways of perceiving the world. Though there is no one particular agreed upon definition, most of the attempts to define culture share some combination of the components listed above.

Some aspects of culture are easy to see, such as music, food, clothing, architecture, language, religious practices, ways of greetings, and other behaviours. It is usually only after time, study, and immersion in a particular culture, however, that you begin to understand and appreciate the deeper and often invisible aspects of culture (which in turn impact the visible forms), including such things as religious beliefs, gender relations, styles of communication, and beliefs concerning the role and importance of the family in society.

How Does Culture Impact My Business?

Since culture is so important to people’s lives and because it influences the way people perceive, process, and interpret information, it stands to reason that culture will also have a huge impact on your business. The following examines the three main areas where cultural considerations are vital.

1) Business Relationships with Overseas Clients, Customers, Employees, and Partners

Culture impacts business relationships a great deal. This is because relationships actually matter a great deal in many cultures, much more so than in North America. In many Western companies, phrases such as “time is money,” or “let’s get down to business,” are common. On the other hand, companies in many other cultures around the world spend much more time, and place considerably more value, on forming and developing meaningful relationships with the people they do business with. For example, many executives in Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Asian, and South American cultures prefer to do business with people they know and trust rather than people they have just met. In these cultures, forming a relationship must often take place before doing any business deals and is required to ensure success with your overseas business partners, clients and customers.

Due to the importance of relationships in many countries, an appreciation and understanding of the culture of the person you are developing a relationship with is critical. Awareness and preparation will go a long way in helping you avoid embarrassing yourself and your company as well as possibly alienating potential customers. If you want to ensure long-term success after your initial entry into a foreign market, then continued cultural awareness, communication and competencies must be a priority for both you and your business.

2) Website Localization and Web Content

If you want to be successful in overseas markets, it is vital that you consider culture when localizing your websites and producing web content. For example, cultures that are collectivist and possess values of high uncertainty avoidance and high power distance will respond better to content and design that reflects a respect for the needs of the group over that of an individual; predictability, structure and order; and a strong belief in power and authority. The way people respond to different colours is also highly influenced by culture; colours have different meanings for people in various cultures. In North America, white generally represents purity and innocence, brides in wedding dresses, snow, and winter. On the other hand, some Asian cultures associate white with death and mourning.

All of the elements important to localization must be viewed through a cultural lens. Additional aspects of website and content design that will be influenced by culture and in turn influence the way visitors perceive your site include:

  • Translation/Language Choice – Phrases, metaphors, idioms, humour, vocabulary, grammar, concepts, and language style must all be equivalent between the translated document and the source document.
  • Pictures – People will be either drawn to or repelled from your website by the pictures and images you choose because they often carry implicit or explicit cultural messages.
  • Symbols – Be sure to avoid symbols, graphics, and colours that will have a negative connotation, be misunderstood, or cause offense in a particular culture. Sometimes symbols that are understood and culturally acceptable in North America may be meaningless or even offensive in other countries. For example, the icon depicting the OK sign using the thumb and index finger is perfectly acceptable in Canada. However, this same symbol is considered an obscene gesture in parts of South America.
  • Spatial Orientation – Left justified text will probably be more visually appealing for English readers as opposed to people reading Arabic, where the language is read from right to left.
  • Navigation – Keep in mind that some languages will take up more space than others and that some languages read from right to left, rather than left to right. These factors will impact the ease and placement of navigation.
  • Numbers – Different cultures use different measurement systems, different ways of writing numbers or even different ways of interpreting numbers. A lucky number in one culture may be considered unlucky in another.

3) Public Relations, Advertising, and Marketing

If you are responsible for public relations at your company, then you know the importance of brand consistency, advertising, media relations, and crisis management. But do you fully appreciate the impact that culture and awareness of cultural differences have on the success or failure of your public relations campaign when launching a product or service in a foreign market?

The recent controversy over a Dunkin’ Donuts commercial is an excellent example of the need to be culturally sensitive and aware when producing, naming, selling, and advertising products. This commercial featured Rachael Ray wearing a black and white scarf. Sounds innocent enough, right? Wrong! Many people believed the scarf resembled a kaffiyeh, the traditional scarf worn by Palestinians, which some people perceive as symbolizing Palestinian terrorism and Islamic extremism. As a result of the outrage and controversy over the scarf and the possibility of misperception, Dunkin’ Donuts stopped airing the commercial.

This is just one of many examples of a company failing to consider the impact of culture on their public relations, advertising, and marketing strategies. Too many companies forget that marketing strategies in one country do not always translate into success in another country.

According to David A. Ricks, author of “Blunders in International Business (2006),” “Because so many potential communication barriers exist, it is especially difficult for companies to effectively communicate with potential buyers. Messages can be translated incorrectly, inappropriate media used, regulations overlooked, and economic or taste differences ignored.

Sometimes the potential customer never receives the company’s message, and at other times the message arrives but because of its ineffectiveness is of little value. Every once in a while the buyer receives the message but, to the company’s dismay, the message sent was incorrect.”


If you are serious about entering and succeeding in foreign markets, then you must consider culture in every aspect of your product development, website design, and marketing campaign. For web content translation, you are advised to hire a professional, highly-experienced, and well-qualified translator that is native to the language and culture of your target market and who will be able to take into account cultural considerations involving expressions, slang, concepts, idioms, and other unique phrases. For your website development, it is a good idea to hire a web designer familiar with the concepts of localization and the needs of your target market.

Further, if you plan on entering new markets throughout the Middle East, South America, or Asia then it is important that you take the time to form and develop relationships based on trust and respect with prospective overseas business partners, as these relationships are the building blocks of successful business ventures in many cultures. Finally, it is crucial you learn from the mistakes other businesses have made. Read case studies, figure out how other companies went wrong, and then conduct the necessary research and devise strategies so you do not make the same mistakes. Take these steps, and you should be able to avoid many of the following pitfalls.

Possible Consequences of Failing to Consider Culture during Localization

• Consumers lose faith and confidence in your product and company.

• Customer backlash and highly visible, negative public reactions.

• Negative public relations and the erosion of the brand you have worked hard to build.

• Loss of revenue, sales opportunities, and customers.

• Possible punishment in the form of retaliatory legislation or lawsuits.

“Culture and Why it Matters to Your Business” is the new White Paper from wintranslation, a professional translation company providing document and website translation services in over 70 languages. This White Paper examines the importance of culture to your business and how understanding and appreciating culture can impact whether or not your company is successful in selling your products or services in foreign markets. You can download this free White Paper at


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4 Responses to “Culture and Why it Matters to Your Business”

  1. cre Says:

    i think that it is great that this website will make people aware of the differences out there in other foreign countries and business excutives will look much beyond there own creative product or service.five stars

  2. Jenn Rush Says:

    Thank you for your support and your kind comments.

  3. Patent translations Says:

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  4. Jenn Rush Says:

    Thank you for your comment and for sharing the link to your translation business.