To adjust and adapt a marketing program to foreign markets, marketers must be able to interpret effectively the influence and impact of each of the uncontrollable environmental elements on the marketing plan for each foreign market in which they hope to do business. In a broad sense the uncontrollable elements constitute the culture; the difficulty facing the marketer in adjusting to the culture lies in recognizing their impact. In a domestic market the reaction to much of the environment’s impact on the marketer’s activities is automatic; the various cultural influences that fill our lives are simply a part of our socialization, and we react in a manner acceptable to our society without thinking about it because we are culturally responsive to our environment.
The task of cultural adjustment, however, is the most challenging and important one confronting international marketers; they must adjust their marketing efforts to cultures to which they are not attuned. In dealing with unfamiliar markets, marketers must be aware of using in making their decisions or evaluating the potential of a market.
Time conscious Americans are not culturally prepared to understand the meaning of time to Latin Americans. These differences must be learned to avoid misunderstandings that can lead to marketing failures. Such a failure actually occurred in one situation when ignorance led to ineffective advertising on the part of an American firm; a second misunderstanding resulted in lost sales when a long waiting period in the office of a Latin American customer was misinterpreted by an American sales executive. Cross cultural misunderstandings can also occur when a simple hand gesture has a number of different meanings in different parts of the world. When wanting to signify something is OK, many people in the US raise a hand and make a circle with the thumb and forefinger. However, this same hand gesture means “zero” or “worthless” to the French, “money” to the Japanese and a general sexual insult in Sardinia and Greece. A US president sent an unintentional message to some Australian protesters when he held up his first two fingers with the back of his hand to the protesters. Meaning to give the ‘victory’ sign he was unaware that in Australia the same hand gesture is equivalent to holding up the middle finger in the US.
Cultural conditioning is like an iceberg – we are not aware of nine-tenths of it. In any study of the market systems of different peoples, their political and economic structures, religious and other elements of culture, foreign marketers must constantly guard against measuring and assessing the markets against the fixed values and assumptions of their own cultures. They must take specific steps to make themselves aware of the home cultural reference in their analysis and decision making.
The key successful international marketing is adaptation to the environment differences from one market to another. Adaptation is a conscious effort on the part of the international marketer to anticipate the influences of both the foreign and domestic uncontrollable factors on a marketing mix and then to adjust the marketing mix to minimize the effects.
The primary obstacles to success in international marketing are a person’s self-reference criterion (SRC). SRC is an unconscious reference to one’s own cultural values, experiences, and knowledge as a basis for decision. The notion that our own culture or company knows best how to do things. Ethnocentrism is particularly a problem for American managers at the beginning of the 21st century because of America’s dominance in the world economy during the late 1990s. Ethnocentrism is generally a problem when managers from affluent countries, work with managers and markets in less affluent countries.
Thus, faced with a problem in another culture, the tendency is to react instinctively and refer to our SRC for a solution. Our reaction, however, is based on meanings, values, symbols and behaviour relevant to our own culture and usually different from those of the foreign culture . Such decisions are often not good ones.
To illustrate the impact of the SRC, consider misunderstandings that can occur about personal space between people of different cultures.
We do not consciously think about that distance, we just know what feels right without thinking. When someone is too close or too far away, we feel un-comfortable and either move farther away or get closer to correct the distance. In doing so, we are relying on our SRC. In some cultures the acceptable distance between individuals is substantially less than that which is comfortable to Americans. When someone from another culture approaches an American too closely the American unaware of that culture’s acceptable distance, unconsciously reacts by backing away to restore the proper distance and confusion results for both parties. Americans assume foreigners are pushy, while foreigners assume, Americans are unfriendly. Both react according to the values of their own SRCs making both victims of a cultural misunderstanding.