The Importance of Cultural Sensitivity in Advertising for Retailers

cultural sensitivity in advertising

Smart global brands know how best to adapt their products and services to meet the needs and aspirations of consumers in local markets. Learning how to cater to new audiences is the key to scaling your brand around the globe, and adopting cultural sensitivity in advertising can play a big part in that. In order for a brand to appeal to many varied audiences, it needs to understand the finer nuances of local culture.

Adapting your product or service to suit local needs and expectations obviously helps your brand cater to its audience. But it’s not as simple as just adapting your clothing range to suit a different climate or tweaking your recipe to cater to a local palate.

Your brand also needs to adapt its messaging to meet local cultural expectations. It’s a key part of making the brand both acceptable and memorable as well as avoiding any blunders that can alienate an audience.

That’s why your brand needs to be culturally sensitive when it enters new markets. Cultural sensitivity in advertising means learning to appreciate the cultural differences and similarities between the new market and your brand’s home market. Importantly, your brand needs to avoid taking a stance on cultural matters.

Your brand can’t start taking sides and deciding a set of cultural values is more or less valid than another. Your brand has to learn to respect and value the cultural values of all the markets it operates in.

Cultural Sensitivity in Advertising: Dangerous Territory

Brands need to be bold to adapt themselves to meet different cultural values but it takes a truly bold brand to try to change the values of an unfamiliar culture. This is dangerous territory but for some brands trying to push the envelope is an essential part of their identity.

Unilever’s Dove beauty brand enjoyed great success in many countries with its body-positive and inclusive ‘Real Beauty’ campaign, which showed unenhanced and natural-looking women in ads and apparently boosted sales from $2.5bn to $4bn in one year.

An example of cultural sensitivity in advertising can be shown here, as the campaign was initially less successful in China, where audiences were more inclined to reject than celebrate Dove’s ad images. Chinese women weren’t as cynical as Westerners about depictions of beauty in advertising and apparently found the unpolished models rather off-putting.

Dove’s bold attempt to challenge China’s values wasn’t initially successful because the brand hadn’t really understood the culture of beauty in this market.

With so many brands now active globally, there’s no shortage of examples of brands making horrible cultural mistakes that cost them dearly. China is notoriously the place where many ambitious brands have faltered in cultural terms. It’s not only because Western brands often misunderstand this very different culture; Chinese society is changing very quickly and it’s hard to pin down social values in a culture that’s undergoing so much social evolution in such a short space of time.

Having a strong local partner and communicating with them well is one way to avoid making cultural mishaps in this market and ensure cultural sensitivity in advertising.

One common mistake brands make in China is not reflecting back the nation that Chinese people are proud of. It’s still common to see Western brands nostalgically showing a rice-fields-and-bicycles version of old China that seems grimy and backwards to modern Chinese citizens.

Like many brands, Apple has often struggled with China’s tricky market but some of the global tech brand’s campaigns seem to have tapped a cultural nerve in this country. In recent ads, the brand has held up a mirror showing a modern, hip society that chimes with the aspirational values of young consumers.

Apple has managed to show China a view of itself it wants to see. Apple also managed the difficult feat of tapping into topical emotional issues by creating a well-received campaign around the issue of Chinese children separated from their working parents. It has shown good cultural understanding of a topical issue and managed to portray it with sensitivity in a way that’s resonated with the audience. By understanding your target market’s preferences, you can help to implement cultural sensitivity in advertising.

Even for a brand with Apple’s immense clout and marketing resources, it’s still tough to navigate cultural issues to create campaigns that really resonate in a different culture. However, this is no excuse for making silly cultural mistakes.

BMW made the error of improperly using the UAE national anthem in one of its ads and several brands have caused offence by printing the Saudi flag (which includes Quranic scripture) on products including burger packaging and beer bottle caps. Even smaller brands have little excuse for not double-checking how these messages and formats might be received locally in order to avoid these kinds of mistakes. Doing your research is one of the greatest ways to avoid mistakes when it comes to cultural sensitivity in advertising.

By partnering with a translation agency that specialises in the localisation of brand marketing campaigns and places cultural sensitivity analysis and adaptation of marketing messages at the core of its localisation service, brands can avoid many of the pitfalls of taking a brand or product to a new market.

Recovering from mistakes

If your brand makes a cultural error like BMW, it’s important to react appropriately in order to minimise the damage and hopefully salvage what you can. The first thing to do is apologise quickly and to take ownership – never try to shrug off or minimise the mistake, particularly if it has caused offence.

Now’s the time to really exercise your cultural sensitivity in advertising to understand the appropriate apology format for this market. You must also pull all of the offending marketing materials and messages immediately.

The unwritten rule of making amends is to go away and reflect on your sins before returning to exceed expectations. For brands already finding it hard to connect with a new market, it’s even harder to return after making a miscalculation.

Cultural sensitivity in advertising FAQs

How does culture affect advertising?

Culture plays an enormous role in the suitability of advertising. What one culture may see as clever or fun, another may see as offensive or inappropriate. It is vital to make sure you check that advertising is suitable for every audience that it will be shown to, before relating the advert. By doing this, you can create positive feelings towards your brand in any chosen location, as well as avoiding reputational damage.

What is an example of cultural sensitivity?

This article has given an example of cultural sensitivity, showcasing how different locations and different cultures require different advertising.

Contributed by: TranslateMedia