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 (cultural) impact on the marketer’s activities is automatic; the various cultural influences that fill our lives are simply a part of our socialization responsive to our environment. The experiences we have gained throughout life have become second nature and serve as the basis for our behavior.
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 attuned. In dealing with unfamiliar markets, marketers must be aware of the frames of reference they are using in making their decisions or evaluating the potential of a market, because judgments are derived from experience that is the result of acculturation in the home country. Once a frame of reference is established, it becomes an important factor in determining or modifying a marketer’s reaction to situations – social and even nonsocial.
For example, a Westerner must learn that while is a symbol of mourning in parts of Asia, which is quite different from Western culture’s use of white for bridal gowns. Also, 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 form; a second misunderstanding resulted in lost sales when a long waiting period in the outer 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 United States raise a hand and make a circle with the thumb and forefinger. However, this same and 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 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 United States.
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 culture. They must take specific steps to make themselves aware of the home cultural reference in their analyses and decision making.
Your self reference criterion can prevent you from being aware of cultural differences or from recognizing the importance of those differences. Thus you might fail to recognize the need to take action, you might discount the cultural differences that exist among countries, or you might react to a situation in a way offensive to your hosts. A common mistake made by Americans is to refuse food or drink when offered. In the United States, a polite refusal is certainly acceptable, but in Asia or the Middle East, a host is offended if you refuse hospitality. Although you do not have to eat or drink much, you do have to accept the offering of hospitality. Understanding and dealing with the self reference criterion are two of the more important facets of international marketing.