Ask an expert: how can I be culturally sensitive when exporting?

If you've decided to take the plunge and start exporting with other countries, congratulations! It's an exciting road - but a complicated one too. You don't just have to juggle paperwork and customs... you have to also be respectful of a whole different business culture. Nadine Tapping is the founder of Thirty Eight London, an agency which helps SMEs export abroad. Here's her advice on how to avoid disastrous cultural mistakes and build business relationships in other countries. 


With the advancement of technology and the ever-increasing potential of the global marketplace, there are many opportunities for entrepreneurs and small businesses to expand, and fast. On the surface it may seem quite simple - find out if they want your goods, and get it to them? However there are a number of factors to consider before tackling some common barriers to entry, culture being one of the most significant. Cultural influences ultimately determine what people like or dislike, feel about something, say about something or do about something.

Knowing and understanding the culture of any one country can take a number of years living there, which is definitely not feasible for most. But understanding culture, customs, attitudes, perceptions, religion, and social class amongst other factors is essential, and taking the time to understand all of these influences will ensure that the outcome for you and your business is a positive one.

Cultural influences

Very few entrepreneurs consider cultural differences when attempting to attract the overseas consumer. Most are very sure that quality and possibly success elsewhere will mean a ‘one glove fits all’ approach, with a bit of tweaking here and there, is good enough. Potential overseas consumers or users of your product or service can be marketed to more effectively and efficiently once the necessary cultural influences are identified - religion, values, customs, gender, social class, wealth and politics, amongst others.

The way you begin a conversation with an overseas market is crucial. These days most consumers in the developed world have some access to the internet, and businesses that sell directly to consumers do well globally by internationalising their websites and marketing materials. Internationalising means replicating the domestic website and localising the language, dialect, content - and in some cases appearance, colour and imagery - to reflect cultural sensitivities.

One solution if done right is to partner with a local commercial agent from the country who understands the culture and will establish with you what will and will not work in that market - this will provide a good sounding platform and insight.  Another method would be to test the market by enlisting a focus group of potential consumers who will provide feedback on everything from your packaging, advertising, presentations and even the designs used for exhibition stands, before risking the business reputation based on a hunch.

Alternatively, if based in the UK, organisations such as the Government agency UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) support SMEs with their international marketing strategies and have specialist consultants in regions across the UK that help businesses to internationalise their website and marketing materials. These are known as Export Communications Reviews and cost around £250.

It’s all in a word: translation is a big deal

Though translation of your website and marketing materials is an obvious solution to connect with consumers overseas, in some cases linguistically certain words in the English language are not directly translatable or will have a completely different meaning if translated - and this is where basic automated translating software may not necessarily do the job. There are many reputable companies who offer expert translation services and can advise on how best to approach this and other translation complexities.

Name it and own it!

Every entrepreneur is aware of how difficult it is to name your business or product, and the exuberant feeling you get once a name has been decided on. Think very carefully about a name and have global expansion in mind from the beginning, and this will in fact save you money or loss of a whole market. Large multinational companies have fallen victim to having to change the name of their brand or products with disastrous implications which could have been avoided if they had just done their research. When naming a product or service, it’s important not to assume your name will be accepted worldwide.

English: the global language of business?

The English language is commonly used worldwide for business. It’s very likely that businesses interested in working with you will have a basic level of English. However this is no reason to be complacent, and entrepreneurs should err on the side of caution and find out that the person you are meeting with speaks English or has a qualified interpreter available. Limit the risk of misunderstandings by simply being prepared for any eventuality.

Gestures and body language: thumbs up? Maybe not

Non-verbal language can be much more complex and in fact should be paid just as much attention to. In some countries specific gestures, movements and greetings will vary from place to place. What may seem very innocent in the West may be interpreted as being rude or disrespectful in the East.

For example in the West most of us have been coached to maintain eye contact at interviews to display a sense of honesty and trustworthiness; however, in other parts of the world this is seen as aggressive. These differences are very much the tip of the iceberg and will pay dividends to understand and adhere to.

Gestures are natural to everyone as is the way our body moves in certain situations. Be mindful of how basic gestures like a thumbs up, a hi-five, or a nod of the head could come across elsewhere. This is something you would need to be aware of, as it could be a genuine deal-breaker.

Respect difference and assume nothing

When conducting business overseas, if you demonstrate respect for a country’s differences this can be rewarded with significant growth for your business. Learning about other cultures will not only enhance your local knowledge, but will ensure you market your product or service with integrity and professionalism.

As a woman who travels alone and to some of the most burgeoning and bustling economies of the world, I drew on my many contacts and friends initially to find out everything I could about West Africa prior to travelling there. This exercise alone provided a valuable insight for me and whilst on my trip I felt better equipped and informed and confident enough to conduct business professionally and without fear of offending or making unnecessary potentially embarrassing mistakes. I now know there is always something interesting to learn about other cultures. Enjoy and embrace the experience, and make it work for you!



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