Cross-cultural Misunderstanding


Culture in its simplest definition is a people’s way of life and of doing things (Meyer & Bello, 2012). Every community in the entire world (be it in the classification of tribes, schools or churches) has a unique way in which they perceive things and interact with each other. Culture is not therefore absolute and it varies all around the world. The power of culture in influencing business is immense and cannot be overlooked. (Mayer & Bello, 2012) attest to this fact by claiming that harmonization of cultures is a determinant of the success of international trade. Business must therefore analyze the cultural implications of their products on a certain market before venturing in the particular market.

Cross-cultural Factors Affecting Businesses in International Markets

Language is one cultural aspect that has the power over the success of any business and should be cautiously considered before any business advancement. Different products may mean very different things in diverse cultures, a factor that must always be anticipated in business. Moreover, the pronunciation of certain names may change in different cultures and end up meaning totally different things from which they were intended to mean. One example of this distortion is the introduction of ‘Vicks’ cough drops in Germany. It turned out that ‘v’ was pronounced as ‘f’ in Germany therefore distorting the product’s meaning to reflect ‘sexual penetration’. The natives in Germany may view the product as abusive and offensive even when it is not and end up boycotting the same.

Another cross cultural factor to be considered is the difference in business environment and technology. While one product may almost be a need in one country or region, it might be considered a waste of resources in another region due to the differences in technology. A perfect example is the entry and eventual exit of Wal-Mart retail stores into and out of Germany respectively. While Wal-Mart is a hit in its home country, the same success was not achieved in Germany purely because Germans prefer to buy from the small and medium-sized retailers. Even with its low prices, Wal-Mart would not succeed in Germany.

The social organization of a people is also a determinant in international and cross cultural business success. Businesses must therefore consider the implications of their products on the social organization of market they are targeting (Johnson et al., 2006). Products with adverts portraying men as tending to their babies may not go down well in some African cultures. The same would apply if a product portrayed or praised women who cater for their family’s needs because some cultures do not conform to that belief.

What a product dictates in terms of authority should also be a consideration when entering different markets. While some cultures imagine that power should be centralized others prefer that power be decentralized. The decision making process is also a sign of power and differs from one culture to the other. Businesses must therefore package their products in a way that associates with the culture of a specific market group regarding authority. The products should thus be flexible so that they do not appear to be in contradiction with the people’s cultural views.

The power of non verbal communication is also a factor in cross cultural business success including the meaning attached to different colors, symbols and even signs. While businesses may not have absolute control over the different meanings, some research about different markets can cushion them against backlash from different cultural groups (Johnson et al., 2006). An example of nonverbal communication is when a soft drink that had six pointed starts on its label was introduced in Arab countries. The locals interpreted the label as pro-Israel and boycotted the product.

Pepsi’s Failure in China

Pepsi had a calculated move of dominating the Asian market by venturing into China. Their launching slogan ‘Pepsi brings you back to life’ was interpreted in Chinese to mean a drink that resurrects their ancestors from their graves. While this may seem like a normal funny and petty error, it was a huge mistake to Pepsi as they were trying to establish a global brand. The variation in language and the failure of the sales team to research on the interpretation of words in China ensured that PepsiCo failed to establish its brand in China (Martin & Chaney, 2006).

Pepsi’s trouble did not end in China but extended into South East Asia where non verbal communication cost the company a fortune. The product was up and till then dominant in the region and had witnessed growth in its sales over the years. The company did not anticipate trouble when it adjusted its coolers’ color to a lighter shade of blue from the former darker blue. The company had failed to analyze the meaning of the new color which was associated with death, mourning and tragedy in the region. Tragedy did follow the company as it lost its dominance to other products in the region. The company had failed to recognize the importance of non-verbal communication, colors and symbols as they vary across cultures (Vrontis & Shoham, 2012).

Panasonic failure in America

In 1996, Panasonic, a Japanese company, developed a touch screen computer which they intended to market in the US using a mascot known as Woody. Japanese named their product The Woody in reference to the famous Woody Woodpecker cartoon. What the company didn’t know is that ‘wood’ is American slang for ‘hard penis’. Things went haywire from that point leading to failure of a highly innovative product.


Culture affects the way business is done and the perceptions of various groups on a certain product. The cultural aspects that affect a particular society must be studied carefully for business to succeed. (Grosse, 2000) implies that Business in the international markets is strong when a venture can anticipate areas of commonality. Areas that are likely to arouse cultural and communication conflicts should be singled out and managerial, sales and technical teams trained on the areas. This step can be the difference between the success of a business and its failure as has been seen in the examples.



Grosse, R. E. (2000). Thunderbird on global business strategy. New York, Wiley

Martin, J., & Chaney, L. (2006). Global business etiquette: A guide to international communication and customs. Westport, Conn.: Praeger.

Mayer, M., & Bello, Y. (2012). Leading cross cultural teams in today’s global marketplace. Newtown Square, Pa.: Project Management Institute.

Vrontis, D., & Shoham, A. (2012). Business development across countries and cultures. Cross Cultural Management Cross Cultural Management: An International Journal.

Johnson, James P., Tomasz Lenartowicz, and Salvador Apud. (2006). Cross-cultural competence in international business: Toward a definition and a model. Journal of International Business Studies