Companies may struggle to find a clear voice that speaks across cultural divides — not just to their partners and customers, but to their own increasingly diverse workforces.

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It’s a global market. Multicultural engagement isn’t optional anymore. Even if you aren’t doing business in other countries, your audience is still a melting pot of people from every conceivable background — and so is your employee base. Presenting your brand consistently across different languages, communities, and cultures doesn’t just happen; it requires careful planning and constant attention.

There are three essential elements to every exchange of ideas: First, the message you want to convey. Second, the point of origin, where the message originates. Third, the point of communication, where the message arrives. Always remember that context can color your message — what your audience hears isn’t always what you intended to say. Language and culture can put an unexpected spin on content, and who’s listening is every bit as important as who’s speaking.

International vs. multicultural: know your audience

To be clear, when we talk about communicating across cultural boundaries, we’re talking about two separate but related problems:

  • International marketing is the challenge of adapting your brand to the prevailing language and social framework in another country.
  • Multicultural marketing is the challenge of communicating to a diverse audience with different cultural backgrounds and expectations in the same region.

Both challenges are becoming increasingly relevant to businesses at every level, in every industry. We’ve devised effective solutions to these problems for clients in technology, healthcare, hospitality, energy, and industry. We’ve helped them communicate clearly in unfamiliar territory, and within their own houses.

Let’s examine cross-cultural engagement from three different perspectives: internal communications, external communications, and fundamental workflows.

One big happy family: internal communication

Building bridges between cultures starts at home, forging a consolidated, coordinated workforce from a diverse employee base. Company newsletters, recruiting materials, onboarding packets, employee handbooks, training manuals, event collateral — it all contributes to the corporate identity, which should welcome and accommodate differences among employees.

When a parent company speaks to a local workforce in another region, unrecognized cultural differences can create confusion, even disrupt business. Ideas specific to one language or nationality may not be reflected in the other. Local representation is critical to avoid misunderstandings.

Identify the local languages that are actively used in your workplace, employ people who are fluent in the language and familiar with the culture, and ensure that translations of all corporate literature are readily available to everyone. Make cultural differences a feature of your internal communications. Recognizing and celebrating diversity in your workforce can improve understanding and company morale.

With mutual respect and informed communication, diversity becomes a strength, not an obstacle.

Bite the wax tadpole: crossing the language barrier

Language and cultural differences can create unexpected problems if you aren’t alert for them. Maybe you’ve heard that one early transliteration of “Coca-cola” into Chinese characters meant “bite the wax tadpole,” or that KFC’s tagline, “finger-licking good,” became “eat your fingers off” in Japanese. Neither of those things actually happened; they’re marketing myths. Coke didn’t build the world’s most recognizable brand by being so careless. But it does illustrate the point: There are pitfalls to international marketing lurking beneath the surface, waiting for unwary communicators to stumble into them.

Branding, messaging, design, even simple phrasing won’t always translate perfectly between languages. It’s the role of professional communicators to understand how a message can change, and to be alert for potential obstacles to understanding. Words, colors, symbols, and gestures can have unexpected meanings from one cultural framework to the next. White represents purity in one region and mourning in another. Owls can be symbols of wisdom for some people, death and misfortune for others. No one can anticipate every possible miscommunication in every language — but you have to know that such cultural misunderstandings are possible, even likely if you aren’t vigilant. If you don’t search for them, you’ll be ambushed by them.

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Lost in translation: practical considerations

Because of the potential hazards involved with marketing to other countries, it’s important to build safeguards into your workflows. Always consult experts — native, bilingual speakers who understand the nuances of communication through the lens of local experience. Always allow time for those experts to consider materials properly, and explore all possible interpretations so that critical elements aren’t lost in translation. Trust them to preserve the spirit and integrity of your brand message; not the letter of it.

When corporate communication goes beyond the local level to the international stage, be prepared for new layers of review and acceptance before any materials are approved for use. That process can’t happen overnight — and shouldn’t. The consequences of hasty miscommunication could be embarrassing at best, catastrophic at worst. No one wants that on their conscience.

Keep it real: sincerity sells in any language

When it comes to cross-culture engagement, people relate to a message that’s genuine and straightforward. Language that’s too clever or “salesy” doesn’t translate. You have to be honest, upfront, and sincere. Keep it real, and your audience will respond.

Marketing speaks to people, not cultures.

Hometown advantage: living inside the melting pot

Houston is the most ethnically and racially diverse city in the United States. It’s also the energy capital of the world, and the busiest port city on the Gulf of Mexico. Experiences in oil and gas, healthcare, and hospitality provide unique insight into the challenges and opportunities afforded by multicultural marketing. Living and working in Houston, we’ve learned how to find common ground and craft communications that appeal to the broadest possible audience, and how to focus our efforts on specific market segments.

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