In Focus:  Don’t Buy This!

Nike recently apologized for a footwear commercial which was banned by China on claims that the ad “sparked anger and offended national feelings.” Featuring LeBron James, it showed the basketball star making easy work of enemies including a white-haired kung fu master, two women in traditional Chinese dresses, and a pair of dragons, a highly respected symbol of power in the country. The ad “violates regulations mandating that all advertisements in China should uphold national dignity and interest and respect the mother- land’s culture,” the country’s State Administration for Radio, Film, and Television said.

International marketing and advertising are interesting fields for cultural research. Fraught with misunderstandings and misinter- pretation of messages and intentions, they expose fundamental challenges of working across cultures with which marketing professionals and others doing business across cultures frequently struggle. Most such issues fall into either of two categories:

Communication Challenges

Stories about marketing communication mistakes abound and often serve to educate International MBA students. Here are a few classics:

A large medical company marketed a new drug in the United Arab Emirate by showing pictures in a newspaper ad. From left to right, the pictures showed someone ill, the person taking medication, and the same person looking well. What marketers forgot was that in the Arab world, people read from right to left.

The Chinese translation of Pepsi's slogan "Come alive with the Pepsi Generation" translated into "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave."

Israeli radio and press ran ads for the “Intimidate Dating Service.” ("Intimi" is the Hebrew word for intimate.)

Scandinavian vacuum maker Electrolux advertised in the US that “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.” (For non-US readers: “sucks” also means “is useless/terrible.”)

Cross-cultural advertisement gaffes tend to be caused by basic translation errors or other misunderstandings and oversights. Similar issues are frequent in other business exchanges. While incorrect translations often cause confusion, even people who speak the same language may interpret words in different ways.

Avoiding such communication issues altogether is difficult. However, a number of tactics help in achieving greater clarity:

•  Avoid slang, adages, and other culture-specific verbiage, such as sports analogies.

•  Consider that a statement’s ‘catchiness’ may matter less in one culture than in another.

•  For translations, use only native speakers living in the destination country.

•  If unsure how well your message works, consult with several people belonging to the target culture.

Cultural Sensitivities

If failing to communicate the right message can be embarrassing, appearing to be culturally insensitive can be outright disastrous.

In the 1990s, apparel maker Benetton ran a campaign that stirred strong controversy and legal action in many countries. For instance, an ad showing a priest kissing a nun was ruled to be illegal by Italy’s Supreme Court. The campaign stimulated numerous consumer appeals to boycott the company’s products.

Toyota ads triggered furious responses and criticism from Chinese watchers, who saw them as deliberate acts by the Japanese car firm to insult the country. One of the ads showed a Toyota Land Cruiser pulling a broken-down truck, which looked similar to a Chinese military vehicle, implying that Japanese SUVs are superior to China's military equipment. Considering Japan's military past in the region, this was sure to draw heated remarks in China. Toyota stopped running the ad and issued an apology.

Showing respect for culture, history, and people is essential when working across cultures. Doing so requires knowing about, and paying attention to, the other country’s values and practices. “Know before you go” is good advice, so unless you are well familiar with culture, history, values, and practices, do some reading, take training, and/or talk to others who are familiar with these aspects before venturing off to do business in any foreign country.

This article is also available in PDF format  (requires Adobe Reader ).

Book Of The Month
The Culture Code


This books makes an inter- esting attempt to reduce complex culture specific marketing concepts to their essence.

(click title for full book review)


Web Site Of The Month


A guide for expatriates to Belgium, France, Germany, The Netherlands, and Spain, with a plethore of information for each.

(click title to visit this web site)


Quote Of The Month

I see my path, but I don't
know where it leads.
Not knowing where
I'm going is what
inspires me to travel it

Rosalia de Castro


All of the 50 individual Country Sections from Negotiating International Business are available online.

Click here to download Country Section PDF files


Leadership Crossroads
is a global resource for

  • Global Business Coaching & Training
  • Cross-Cultural Project Management
  • Outsourcing Preparation
  • International Negotiation Training and Assistance
  • Organizational Learning and Development
  • Executive Coaching
Would you like to know
    more about us?




Upcoming Workshop in Richardson, TX:
Oct 15-16 Managing International Projects

This two-day project management workshop is facilitated by
Dr. Sue Freedman and Lothar Katz.

Lothar Katz is the founder of Leadership Crossroads.  He has a wealth of experience in achieving productive coopera- tion across cultures and driving business success on a global scale.
A seasoned former executive of a For­tune 500 company, he regularly interacted with employees, cus­tomers, out- sourcing partners, and third parties in more than 25 countries around the world.

Contact :
Leadership CrossroadsTM, 2007

Global Business Practices:
Ten Tips For Doing Business in Spain

  • Most Spaniards have two family names. Use the father's family name to address them, which is the one in the middle, right after the first name.
  • Taking time to build strong relationships is vital. Spaniards tend to distrust people who are “all business.”
  • Respect everyone’s honor and personal pride. Never criticize someone in public.
  • Punctuality is crucial with people who outrank you. However, be prepared for them to keep you waiting.
  • Spanish hierarchies tend to be formal and managers authoritarian. Never go around the chain of command.
  • Understand legal aspects well, but don’t bring a legal counsel to the negotiation table. It may be read as a lack of trust.
  • Business may or may not be discussed over meals. Wait for your host to bring up the subject.
  • While discussions may become lively, Spaniards generally dislike loud and boisterous behavior.
  • Keep eye contact frequent, almost to the point of staring, as doing so conveys sincerity and builds trust.
  • Be prepared for people to stand closer to each other than what you might be used to.

Our newsletter is a bimonthly publication about all aspects of International and Cross-Cultural Business Management.  Past issues can be found in our  newsletter archive.

If this issue has been forwarded to you, would you like to subscribe to it now?

If you are a current subscriber but you do not wish to receive this newsletter in future, simply send a blank e-mail to