The Soda Academy
"Consumers and brands rush to express their opinions without taking time to consider the cultural implications of their commentary."
"There are endless opportunities to tailor overarching brand messages to niche audiences, making the stories being told more relevant, personal, and meaningful."

Chelsea Perino, Big Spaceship

Cultural Competency in the Digital Era

Experience Prototyping

Global. Universally relevant. Culturally agnostic. These are phrases that have become colloquial in the language of digital advertising as brands have realized the power and reach possible through effective digital communications.

Advertisers are increasingly being asked to ‘think global, act local,’ but this concept is a paradox in and of itself. Irrespective of global awareness, people are a product of their culture, a fact that strongly influences consumer behavior. Thus, the way that advertisers approach creative problem solving requires a level of cultural competency that has not been necessary in the past.

The challenge is that as ‘the internet of things’ becomes ever more pervasive, brands are struggling to reach everyone, and in real time no less. As a result, conversations are forced into a reactive state and participants (both consumers and brands) rush to express their opinions without taking time to consider the cultural implications of their commentary.

While the Internet is the ultimate example of a ‘global’ communication channel, people – somewhat ironically –use it primarily at a local level. People use the technology within the context of their location, and adapt it to suit their needs. The rapid localization of global brand websites into different languages, or the adaptation of social networks to fit specific cultural behaviors are prime examples of this trend.

Let’s take China, for example. Restricted access to global communications channels led the Chinese to create alternatives. From Facebook, RenRen was born; from Twitter, Weibo. But what’s more interesting is that although RenRen started as an exact Facebook clone, it quickly developed to suit the interests of its audience. In the case of RenRen, a heavy social gaming integration soon changed the original platform schematic.

So what does this mean for global brands and advertisers as they travel through the creative process? The answer is three-fold.

First, there are endless opportunities to tailor overarching brand messages to niche audiences, making the stories being told more relevant, personal, and meaningful. Advertisers are becoming increasingly talented at taking a global brand ethos and extending it through a local cultural lens.

Advertisers are also becoming aware of the fact that with limitless opportunities there are larger margins for error. Because everyone has access to everything, all the time, advertisers have to be particularly careful about what they say and how their stories are presented.

Third, international client relationships are turning into the new normal; however, but the differences and unique aspects of those types of relationships are often being overlooked.

The question then becomes, what happens if the above points are not taken into consideration? Being culturally unaware means that brands (and their respective advertisers) can quickly find themselves in deep water. A single misguided tweet can cause a global outcry and tarnish a brand’s credibility forever.

It also means an arduous and frustrating campaign development process. In short, it’s easier to be frustrated with the unfamiliar than it is to take the time to fully understand the context of feedback within the larger organizational and cultural architecture from whence it came.

Overall, the solution needs to start with advertisers. Improving their cultural competency positively impacts the development of creative solutions, agency/client relationships, inter-agency and even inter-team collaborations. An open perspective paves the way for relationships that are based on respect, mutual understanding and collaboration, ultimately leading to creative solutions that have global impact and local relevance.

About the author:

A native New Mexican, Chelsea Perino moved to New York to attend NYU for her undergraduate studies where she received a dual degree in Anthropology and Linguistics with a minor in Chemistry. After graduating, she traveled abroad for 4+ years, visiting more than 70 countries. She eventually entered the marketing field in Cape Town, South Africa. She returned to NYC to complete a Master’s Degree in Public and Organizational Relations (with a focus on Digital Communications Strategy). She is now based in South Korea where she leads Global Strategy at Big Spaceship's Seoul office for a global technology brand.

Illustration provided by Kate Sheridan