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How to overcome cultural barriers and market your brand in the US

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The Internet makes it possible to sell your products and services around the world yet reaching out to people in other cultures remains a challenge for most companies. People are spending more time online, ecommerce continues to grow, and organizations of all kinds can find opportunities to serve international clients. SEO expert Lily Ray describes one of the bad ways in which brands often try to exploit those opportunities:

In her tweet, Ray refers to “IP redirecting,” a popular practice of automatically presenting a website in the language of the country where a user is in. Today you can even set your browser to show every website in your favorite language no matter where you or the website are, but that is not why SEOs like Lily Ray recommend against automatic redirecting. Automated translation is easy, inexpensive, and a lot more accurate than in the past, so people use it more than ever.

The reason why SEO experts recommend against redirecting is that local language is just one aspect of connecting with local audiences. If you want to show up on a local Google search, you need to be relevant locally. Redirecting only shows you are clueless.

Technology gets you across borders, but it takes more than that to make a good job once you are there. One theory that explains more of what it takes to do a better job is cultural intelligence. This is the work of a group of researchers who studied how people navigate cultural differences and codified a person’s relative competence in a “cultural quotient” or CQ. You can even take a test.

What’s your brand’s CQ?

A person’s CQ is calculated by analyzing their performance along the four dimensions of cultural intelligence: motivational, cognitive, metacognitive, and behavioral. While studying this theory, Verb’s co-founder Victor Aimi worked out a way to map these dimensions to a brand vehicle like your website. He came up with four different aspects of your brand to keep in mind when addressing an international market: your organization’s nationality, industry, culture, and technology. Let’s go over these aspects one by one to see what levers to pull to get it right.

Nationality: Those people are weird

Start with nationality, which most people only take seriously when it’s theirs. To take other nations seriously you need to engage your motivational CQ. In other words, you need to care enough about those other people to show some respect for their local customs. These go well beyond language. For example, there are at least 16 countries in Latin America where they speak Spanish, but the word for “cap” in Colombia is the slang for female genitals in Argentina. Some objects seem to attract word variations, like “kite,” which is called 15 different ways in Spanish Latin America.   

That is before you start switching languages. For example, if you use the Spanish pronunciation for the letter “Q” in Brazil, you can forget about having a business chat. Some countries have more than one official language, like Canada. But most countries or states have more than one nationality, even if they only have one official language. For example, voting ballots in South Florida come in English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole.

In most places there are also cultural differences related to immigrant communities, to native nations, to ethnic groups, to religious groups, and to LGBT communities. And of course, there are overlaps between all these different groups. If you can engage with any of these groups on a personal level, that alone can help your international journey. At a business level, you want to start by finding the overlaps with your target audience. That should be your first step.   

Industry: Is that website even legal?

The next step concerns the things you need to know to operate your business in a different country. Different countries regulate industries in their own way, and it’s your job to learn how those things affect your business. On a personal level, this is a little like having the right currency if you want to pay cash in a foreign country: you’re expected to know these things. It’s your cognitive CQ.

For a website, that might include things like displaying prices with tax, your return policy, your shipping policy, and your privacy policy. Your specific industry might have special regulations that local customers are concerned about. Ignoring those would be bad. On the other hand, addressing regulatory changes quickly can make you more relevant.

In fact, Mark Williams-Cook of Candour reminds us that redirecting traffic based on the country of origin will become illegal in the European Union starting 12/2. Another reason to start working on your brand’s cultural intelligence.

Culture: Now I’m insecure

Becoming self-aware about your organizational culture is perhaps the hardest task, but it’s also the most important so stay with us. On a personal level, this would be your metacognitive CQ. Every brand has a culture too that comes straight from the organization’s founders and people, but not everyone is always aware of what that is. We are immersed in our team’s culture and it’s very hard to look at ourselves from outside to realize how odd, or ahem, peculiar we are compared to other organizations.

Being self-conscious is awkward, so we tend to avoid the introspection. In 2017, researcher J. Ahearne found that immigrants often suffer from cultural insecurity as they try to break the barriers to insert themselves in a new culture. Brands need to go through the same process. The result of avoiding it would be even worse as we would go around as obvious foreigners to the markets we want to sell into.

After many years in international newsrooms, the team at Verb has collected some great “lost in translation” anecdotes, but for a consistent feed of the best Spanglish catastrophes we recommend Laura Martinez on Twitter:

The trick to move over your cultural insecurity as a business is to identify the aspects of your brand’s culture that can best contribute to the group you are targeting. For example, one of Verb’s customers has years of experience analyzing hacker behavior, and that’s something valuable for companies who want to become more effective at dealing with cyberattacks—which is most companies in the markets they want to enter. An excellent reason to emphasize this aspect of their brand’s culture.

Technology: You should have asked!

Now that you know more about the cultural aspects of your brand’s nationality, industry, and culture, you can put your learning in practice by using technology in a smarter way to connect with your customers. Your website is the first thing that an international customer will check to evaluate your brand. You know that redirecting them to a translation of the most popular language in their country is not the most effective way to connect with them, but what can you do instead? Time to put in practice your behavioral CQ.

The best thing to do is to simply ask. The question is something like, “Dear customer, for what country and in what language would you like the information?” That alone is a huge help for the customer, and an opportunity to get their feedback from the moment they arrive to your website. According to Professor J. Logozzo at Northeastern University, this is an example of a website that asks this question well:

Perhaps it’s no surprise that an international logistics company like UPS does a good job of connecting people across different cultures, but they are not the only example of a smarter way to use technology for this end. Michal Pecánek of Ahref shared how fintech Wise created 12,000 web pages to help their customers navigate international wire transfer codes in the US alone. Because of this and other smart SEO moves, the company was rewarded with over 6 million organic (aka non-paid) visits per month.

Right, you are not UPS nor Wise, don’t nearly need 12,000 web pages, and in fact only care about one specific market. Good for you! You can still do a smarter job connecting with that specific market if you analyze how your nationality, industry, culture, and technology affect your communication. You might not need to ask your customers for their location and language preference, but they will still benefit if you ask yourself how to approach them in a way that respects their cultural differences.