The following is a guest post by Eitan Chitayat, founder of the global natie agency.

If you’re marketing a new product in your own country, it goes without saying that your work reflects the place and culture you live in. You don’t even have to think about it because your audience shares the same general values and attitudes that you do. But if you’re working at a startup that’s expanding into international markets for the first time, you’ll inevitably face the challenge of adapting your branding (as well as the rest of your marketing program) for entirely new audiences who live and breathe a completely different culture and respond to marketing campaigns in ways that may surprise you.

The thing is, there’s a lot more to adapting than merely translating, and as I have learned from firsthand experience, the success of a marketer who’s targeting international audiences relies heavily on understanding that difference. You will quickly learn how many of the things you thought were shared human attitudes and values are really nothing more than local customs and tastes. What we think looks good may not necessarily appear so to a consumer who grew up in another part of the globe. And even though I’ve lived in five countries and I’ve traveled extensively, it wasn’t until I worked on projects for people in far-flung locales that I began to realize how culture influences aesthetic judgments.

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned:

1. Translations have to be better than correct – they have to be native.
While translation is only the first step, it’s a very important one. Be certain that whoever translates your work is a native speaker of the language in question. So much of good communication is idiomatic, and if your marketing sounds like it’s coming from a stiff, formal corporation rather than likable human beings, the results will show it.

2. Aesthetically, different cultures value different things.
Do your research into the aesthetic sensibilities of the people you’re trying to reach. Different colors mean different things in different cultures. One country’s “gaudy” may well be another country’s “vibrant.” In some places, certain colors are associated with good or bad fortune. The smart marketer at any startup will know these things before stepping foot into a new locale.

 3. Be certain your imagery says what you think it says.
Understand the values and the priorities of your audience. Know what they want a product to say about them. To some people, a rural scene suggests a return to a simpler time when people took the care to make things well. But to someone in a country that’s undergoing rapid modernization, such a scene may simply remind them of the rural hardship their country is working so hard to leave behind. They may respond more to imagery that reflects the upward mobility they’re striving to achieve.

4. Before you run with it, run it by a native.
As a final step, run your work by someone from the culture you’re marketing to. See if he or she has any guidance or “watch outs” for whatever you’re proposing.

A few examples from my own experience: a start-up client recently asked my branding agency natie to put together a presentation for potential investors in China. So we sought the advice of a Chinese marketing pro…and we ended up with a presentation we never would have arrived at without her. The colors and design were simply not something we would gravitate to in the West. But sure enough, our Chinese audience found them very appealing and the presentation has been very well received.

A similar thing happened when we did a project for Google Africa that introduced Gmail to the continent. Every aspect of our work, from the strategy to the tone of voice, the message and especially the design, was steeped in the vibrancy of African culture. Maybe it was a little loud for Google, but for the audience, it was just right. And the results proved it.

Your audience needn’t be especially exotic for cultural factors to come into play, either, as our experience with a French client showed. In working with them and seeing what they responded to and what they found less than compelling, we realized that the work they liked had a distinctly Gallic flavor to the design.

Today, when we start working with any client from another country or another continent, the first thing we do is survey design from that part of the world. It’s inevitably fascinating, and we’ve found that elements of work we do for one culture often make their way into our work for other ones – adapted for local markets, of course.

“Today, when we start working with any client from another country or another continent, the first thing we do is survey design from that part of the world.”

But that’s one of the beauties of globalization: to share and merge and take “some of this and some of that” in order to create something entirely new that people will respond to because it’s still rooted in local values.


More posts by Eitan:
Great brands don’t just happen. Here’s how to create one that’s both current and built to last.
marketing to a foreign audience