5 steps to manage cultural challenges in business internationalization

sfide culturali internazionalizzazione

When undertaking a business internationalization process, it is essential to thoroughly understand the culture of the target country. This is the only way to avoid mistakes due to lack of knowledge of traditions, beliefs and values that could cost you dearly.

In this article we will look at how to overcome the cultural and linguistic challenges of business internationalization in 5 steps.

1. Know the customs and traditions of the destination country

Like all interactions, business is based on human relationships, and in the process of internationalizing businesses, it is crucial to know how to best manage relationships with our foreign prospects. We will need to try to get on the same page to create the right premises for a good negotiation, avoiding cultural traps that are always around the corner.

Before expanding into a new market, therefore, extensive research into local culture, traditions, beliefs, and values should be conducted. This will help understand consumer preferences, expectations and social norms, enabling the company to adapt accordingly.

Lack of attention to the cultural aspect of business internationalization puts one at great risk: think of Dolce & Gabbana’s epic fail in China.

November 21, 2018 was supposed to be the day of Dolce & Gabbana’s official debut in the Chinese market with a very important fashion show. But a few days earlier, the brand’s advertising campaign, consisting of three commercials titled “Eating with chopsticks,” was unveiled.

The videos showed a Chinese model dressed in Dolce & Gabbana clothes, eating Italian dishes with chopsticks, with poor results, while a voiceover explained to the model that her way of eating those foods was not correct.

Whilst the original intent of the advertising campaign was probably to create a bridge between Chinese and Italian cultures through food, the result was that the commercials were deemed stereotypical and offensive, triggering strong outrage from China and incalculable damage to the brand.

This is the risk embedded in underestimating certain aspects inherent in the cultural scope of business internationalization.

2. Avoid controversial topics in business meetings

To avoid mistakes, controversial topics and personal or uncomfortable topics such as politics or religion should be avoided in international business meetings. Instead, green light for passepartout topics such as food and weather, especially at the beginning.

Great attention also deserves the topic of numbers, which in the world of international business can create quite a few embarrassments. Beliefs and superstitions related to numbers are present all over the world, but particularly in Asian cultures they are a strongly felt theme: for example, in China, Japan and Korea the number 4 is considered unlucky. Therefore, it will be a good idea to avoid scheduling a contract signing for the 4th of April!

3. Pay attention to nonverbal communication

It is also crucial to pay attention to nonverbal communication at the level of mimicry and proxemics. Classic and seemingly innocuous gestures such as the okay or victory sign, which have positive connotations in many western countries, may instead have negative connotations in other geographical areas.

Even the handshake-which has always been fundamental in the business world-is not as cross-cultural as one might think. For example, a man and a woman may not always shake hands. Sometimes it is more appropriate to hint at a bow with a smile.

Regarding proxemics and space management, then, it is important to avoid invading our prospects’ comfort zone by getting too close, seeking physical contact or looking too directly into their eyes. In general, the rule applies of keeping at least one meter in Europe and half a meter more in the East or when the parties are of different sexes. Hugs, pats on the back or kisses on the cheek should also be avoided, especially in Asia, where the absence of physical contact in greetings is a common trait.

4. Adapting products and services and localizing communication

In business internationalization, it is very likely that the company’s products and services will require adjustments to meet the needs and tastes of local consumers. Gathering feedback from local customers and making adjustments accordingly can greatly improve brand acceptance in the target market.

Clearly, communication and marketing should also be adapted to the local language and culture. If possible, it is also a case of making sure that business materials, websites and documents are translated into the local language and by native speakers. Relying on marketing and communication professionals with local expertise can help avoid misinterpretation.

As the Dolce and Gabbana case shows, communication campaigns abroad require very careful study and a culturally aware and respectful approach. In this case, the main mistake was to propose ads with an “Italian-centric” perspective to the Chinese people, with the result that the advertisement seemed to be a stereotypical representation of China. The choice to make irony using chopsticks, then, turned out to be a real offense, since chopsticks are a strong symbol of Chinese culture.

5. Hire local staff and establish local partnerships.

A particularly effective way to handle cultural challenges in international expansion is to hire staff from the target region. Local employees will bring valuable knowledge of the target country’s market and culture, facilitating interactions with customers and business partners. Establishing partnerships with local companies can also facilitate market entry and increase public trust in the brand.

It will also be good to provide cross-cultural training programs for staff interacting with the new market, with the aim of raising awareness of cultural and linguistic differences, improving communication and the ability to respond to the needs of local customers. This applies to the internationalization of both large companies and SMEs.

Investing time and resources in understanding the local culture and training staff will ensure a smoother transition into the new market and a more positive relationship with customers and a possible foreign business partner.

Are you an entrepreneur or a SME owner and seeking to expand your business abroad while avoiding cultural traps?

Get in touch with no hesitation for a free call and find out how I can be of help to you.