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Culture and History: Ingredients of International Marketing

Language Culture and History Ingredients of International Marketing

In the 2005 movie Syrianna, George Clooney refers in Farsi to another character who is playing the role of an Arab terrorist as a “son of a goat.”

Clooney’s role is that of a secret agent selling arms to Iranian groups as a means to penetrate a weapons smuggling network.

The ethnic descriptor is important to the context: Calling someone from the Middle East, a culture that places heavy emphasis on identity and honor, is perhaps one of the worst insults an individual could level.

The fact that his insult did not invoke the slightest response confirmed his role’s suspicion that arms were not just going to Iranians, but also to Arab terrorist organizations. However crude, this line demonstrates an intricate cultural understanding Clooney possesses in his role in this movie.  

Marketers have a need for to obtain language and cultural understanding before entering new markets. A lack of careful market research and message testing can result in a public relations disaster, cost businesses millions of dollars, and ultimately lead to failure.

The web is littered with international marketing blunders. Some I’ve read in textbook case studies and other have proven to be more urban legend than fact. For example, according to Snopes.com, Coca-Cola never actually promoted biting the tadpole in China. Regardless, these examples serve to provide a note of caution to marketers and underscore my point.

the best leaders are students of history because they tend to take a long view

A related aspect of my military experience I often find so helpful in my business career is that the military often places me in situations far outside my comfort zone. It’s challenging and drives me to think about the effects of any effort.

In military parlance, this simply means what are the “second and third order of effects” of a decision or action made today. In addition to language and culture, this requires and understanding of history relevant to the target market.

It’s a sentiment echoed in the business world – to paraphrase Harvard’s Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the best leaders are students of history because they tend to take a long view.

For certain, the military currently finds itself locked in as much of a battle of ideas – a public relations fight – as it does a kinetic fight consisting of technology and ground troops. In many ways it’s political and an asymmetrical battle that US forces are unaccustomed to fighting, though I might add, in the last several years there have been dramatic improvements.

When coalition forces launched an Iraqi-led offensive against insurgents I recall being present in a meeting where the Iraqi given name for the offensive, “Operation Gaugamela” was roughly translated, and as I understood it at the time, as something akin to “wrath of God” or “judgment of God.”

Clearly, it’s not a name we might have selected, but since we were working to enable the Iraqi security forces to take the lead, the name stuck. Think of Operation Gaugamela as a marketing slogan in what was partially a communications campaign.

This example highlights that there’s more to international marketing and public relations than culture and language. Had we been sharper on our history, something we often overlook since our own country’s history is a mere 200 years, we might have realized that the Battle of Guagamela (331 BC) was where a vastly outnumbered Alexander the Great defeated a technologically superior Persian army.

In Operation Gaugamela, the insurgent groups were largely composed of Sunni Arabs in this particular region of the country – which causes me to wonder in retrospect, does this mean the Iraqi security forces were labeling the insurgents Persians? If so, what are the consequences of such a label? Would that isolate them? Motivate them? Facilitate their recruiting efforts?

Even in hindsight, it’s to assess, though my instinct tells me it was probably a PR victory.  It would have been much more advantageous to have been aware of these questions back then as opposed to now.

How many businesses say that after a rolling our products in a new market?

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