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When designing international marketing materials, businesses naturally want to choose the right words, colors, and imagery to create specific feelings about their products and services. A conversational tone accompanied by a soothing blue sky background and confident looking woman giving the viewer an enthusiastic thumbs up evokes a feeling of calm confidence, but is this feeling universal? If this were the theme of your U.S. marketing, could you simply copy and paste it into your international marketing and expect the same result?

Tone, color, and imagery are consistently challenging to get right when you’re marketing internationally, so it’s important, at the very least, to recognize that their meanings can change once you cross borders. Here’s a quick look at each of these elements to help you see why they’re so critical to effective marketing communication.


Tone is the word we use to refer to the attitude a business presents through word choice and sentence structure, and it adds a layer of unwritten meaning to your content. Tone can be formal to express a weight or seriousness to your subject, as in a legal document or safety protocol. It can be humorous to alleviate stress and create a common experience, like detailing a mundane or annoying task. It can be easy-going and conversational, such as simplifying a complex problem to build trust in your expertise.  The trick with setting the tone in your content is setting the right tone. Not all cultures find humor in business to be acceptable, and not all cultures believe it’s okay for a business to straight talk with its customers. Getting your tone right, means learning these rules in the markets you want to enter and following them.


The blue sky background mentioned in the opening paragraph of this article was intended to evoke a sense of calm and confidence, and, as it turns out, around the world blue is one of the safer color choices when it comes to communicating a consistent feeling across cultures. White, on the other hand, is a different story. In the U.S., white is used to communicate purity, peace, and cleanliness, but in Asian cultures, it signals death, mourning, and bad luck. The color red comes with similar duality. In some contexts, red is a show of excitement and energy, while in others it’s a sign of danger. If your marketing materials rely heavily on color to communicate, you need to make sure your color choices are culturally sensitive so you don’t unintentionally send the wrong message.


In the U.S., we often use images as short cuts in our communications. (Think emoticons.) Simple pictures and illustrations like hand gestures, for example, are commonly used to quickly convey a feeling. A thumbs-up means yes, I approve. Holding two fingers up in a V shows you’re a winner or signifies peace. But, take these gestures elsewhere, and you’ll likely find yourself in trouble, as all three can be interpreted as insults or worse in the Middle East and other parts of the world. These gestures are just one simple example to make a larger point: choose your images wisely. They may not mean what you think they do.

The ultimate lesson here is that culture plays an enormous role in how we interpret the world around us, and every culture is different in its interpretations. The best way to ensure you’re communicating accurately in a foreign market is to connect with your counterparts in the market to learn about their culture or find a consultant that knows the market well and can guide you when making these decisions.

Reach out to Wavelength Marketing today for help in identifying cultural considerations when marketing your business internationally. Call Gary Peterson at: 717-823-6939.

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