Translating brands across cultures a challenge

There is a series of books called Culture Shock. The idea behind them is to prepare English-speaking people for living and working in foreign cultures. Though they give you an overview of the social customs, history and an introduction to the language, they barely scratch the surface of the psyche you are about to encounter.

There is a series of books called Culture Shock. The idea behind them is to prepare English-speaking people for living and working in foreign cultures. Though they give you an overview of the social customs, history and an introduction to the language, they barely scratch the surface of the psyche you are about to encounter.

Few books written by foreigners can. And because in the course of making brands you are constantly tinkering with the psyche of your customer, trying to uncover the truths you hope are hidden from your competitors, you have to dig deep into the local psychology.

It is a cliché to assert that you can’t impose the attributes of one culture on to another one. And yet we do it instinctively. It is tempting to do so especially with global brands, whose attributes have been defined elsewhere, maybe the U.S., or the U.K., or Germany.

You want them to be consistent, right? But what if the attributes that are considered ‘core’ in one country are offensive in another? Or what if the processes of branding, designed for more sophisticated consumers, are a misfit in a country where consumers are in an earlier stage of development?

For instance, the Czech Republic is at a different stage of marketing development than North America. But more importantly, it is a culture with a long, distinct history, the last 60 years of which have shared almost no attributes with ours. And it is only one of many other distinct cultures in the developing world, all of which are being invaded by our brands – and our style of branding.

So in an effort to gain deeper access to the Czech psyche, and in character with the practices of branding as we westerners know them, we got together a few weeks ago with a room full of Czech ‘thought leaders.’ We had the editor in chief of a national women’s magazine, a playwright, a philosopher, an actor, a translator. The moderator of the session, a rakish, professorial fellow of 50 or so, summarized the findings of many previous sessions we had had with this group. His summary took the form of a profile of the Czech ‘persona.’

Many foreigners size up the Czechs as private, inward-looking and very rational people. They are often surprised that Czechs don’t invite their friends over for dinner. But Czechs live in flats. Small flats. So they go out to eat when they want to be with friends. The pubs are full every night, and there are more pubs here than in most places. And they are full of laughing, joking, drinking Czechs, none of whom look like they are keeping anything to themselves.

Our moderator himself proffered the cliché that his compatriots were rational, practical people, describing them as if they were emotional ciphers. He quipped that Czechs ‘physically hate to get enthusiastic.’ Okay, maybe that’s a holdover from the days when everyone had to march in the annual Mayday parade and do cartwheels for Karl Marx.

But I watched the world hockey championships here a couple of months ago, and the Czechs were no less wildly enthusiastic than anyone else.

Like most people, Czechs are uncomfortable talking about their emotions. Like most people, they don’t even know how to. Who can speak intelligently about the depths of their psyche? Almost none of us. But it doesn’t mean that we don’t have one.

On one level, the observations we heard did reveal that because consumer brands have only been here for 15 years or so, they haven’t become the instant cues for trust that they are in more developed countries. So people still shop around a bit more, and evaluate brands a little more carefully than we do. But they also have much less disposable income to purchase with, so their hesitation is understandable.

So you see the problem. The emotions are in there, the insights are waiting, but the expertise to elicit them is not as far along as it should be. My own view is that the Czechs are sophisticated in ways that we aren’t. But how to crack the psychic shell? This is our challenge.

The question then arises, how do you advertise to these people? Of course it depends on the brand and on the segment, but for the most part, they are pretty much like the rest of us. They love humour and you get the full range of it here, from really corny to very sophisticated. Our own spots are known for their authentically Czech humour, and are therefore quite popular. And our segment skews towards young adults, so the humour tends to be edgy.

But we’ve seen people dressed up like honey bees to advertise health snacks, bikini-clad gangs of models dancing in the rain for bottled water and folks with cans of cold beer strapped to their heads hawking refrigerators. Not a lot different than that guy fitted out like a certain bottle of mouthwash back in Canada.

One other trend that is highly noticeable is the use of the word ‘life’ in every other tagline. From ‘Get more out of life’ (a mobile operator) to ‘Life as it really is’ (insurance) to ‘The flavour of life’ (dry soup), brands all over the country are quickly beginning to understand that they are not just selling products but that they play an emotional role in people’s lives.

Maybe the research guys should watch commercials more often.

Will Novosedlik is a brand strategist at Oskar, the Czech Republic’s third mobile phone operator. He can be reached at will.novosedlik@oskar.cz.