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Cross-Cultural Design: Designing Marketing Material and Products Across Cultures


When you market your products and services globally, you have to be extremely sensitive to colors, symbols, numbers and layouts. Here we outline four ways to design across cultures without offending anyone. As you read through these, keep in mind that no detail is too small to analyze, especially if it can snowball into a problem later on.

1. Tailor your products to individual markets. If you are about to export your products, think about what the package colors connote in the country of destination. Vibrant, attention-grabbing red sometimes signifies "warning" or "danger" in the U.S., but in Chinese culture, it indicates good luck. A slick black package with touches of embossed gold or silver conveys elegance and sophistication in the U.S. and some newly industrialized countries, but in certain parts of Africa, for example, it suggests death! Even if your design principles have been foolproof for products to be sold in the U.S., expect to have to scrap them and start fresh when it comes to marketing products abroad.

Action plan: Look at similar products online in the country of destination. What are the most powerful and consistent colors you are seeing? If you never see yellow, don’t use yellow. It’s that simple. If you have a customer who is interested in your product, send product samples to get their feedback. The question becomes: Can they market the product as is or must you tailor the product to meet their individual needs? Better to know upfront than to send over a big shipment that is rejected or, worse yet, cleared through customs and never sold!

2. Understand the market you are entering. Besides your color choices (always go for happy), your illustrations or graphics need to be appropriate, appealing and understandable to your end-user. The goal is to never offend. Similar to No. 1, if there is a way to get opinions on your package design from actual consumers in your target market, do so. Would they buy it on the basis of the way it looks? For example, if you put a smiling face on your package, but the purchase of that particular product is taken quite seriously in their country, would your labeling be cheap-looking, or even offensive?

Action plan: Test the market first by sending a few samples to a prospective customer. What do they respond to? Is the reaction favorable or unfavorable? Make a list of everything that needs to be addressed and make the adjustments.

3. Be sensitive to the market. An image tells a thousand words, so stay clear of shocking visuals. Why take the chance? But you probably do want to have some kind of image. Take frozen bread dough: when Americans see it in a transparent bag, they know what's inside. But will they in New Caledonia? Keep this in mind when you develop packaging for worldwide sales. Illustrations are acceptable, two-color pictures look nicer, but four-color label photography shows it like it is. Put yourself in the shoes of the prospective customer. If you don't know what's being sold, why buy it? Beyond knowing what the product is, how is it prepared? Must the frozen dough be baked or can it be microwaved? Do they use ovens and microwaves in New Caledonia? How big are they? What temperature range?

Action plan: If you can’t get to New Caledonia, find someone who’s on the ground (preferably a native) who can tell you if New Caledonians use frozen bread dough and how they prepare it. Do they thaw and bake, bake frozen, grill or microwave it? You never know unless you do your homework and ask.

4. Develop the right mindset. To design marketing or packaging materials that resonate with consumers in another country, one must develop the right mindset, or worldview. This is a prerequisite to selling citizens throughout the world. That mindset requires you to be inquisitive: What’s a typical day in the life of a person you are about to market a product to that lives thousands of miles away? If you can’t honestly answer that, you are not ready to market your product there! For example, if a Japanese executive were to export a smart phone to meet the needs of the American market, what should her mindset be? She should ask some basic questions: Do Americans use smart phones, and if so, what kind? What are Americans’ habits using smart phones? A little homework would reveal that Americans love Apple’s iPhone or Google’s Android. That means for the Japanese executive to be successful in the American market with their smart phone, they must top Apple’s and Google’s. That’s the smart mindset.

Action plan: Put yourself in the shoes of a prospective customer you intend to sell to. What’s a typical day-in-the-life of your target customer? Do they currently consume what you are about to offer? If so, how can it be improved? If not, are you prepared to educate them?

A one-size-fits all strategy rarely works in marketing and designing products and services across cultures. The trick is to ask a lot of questions, get on the ground in the country you wish to do business in and conduct market research well in advance of getting started. It takes a sensitive person to conduct healthy business in a borderless world. Follow these points and you have a starting point for success.

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