When Culture Matters…for Innovation

Back in those glory days at the University of Cincinnati, I was assigned a lovely little textbook to read for Freshman English class called “The Elements of Style” (by E.B. White and William Strunk). In a nutshell it’s all about how to write clearly. It provides succinct advice with spot-on examples. It’s a smallish book which easily fits into your jacket pocket. I read it, used it, and have refferred to it hundreds of times over the years. I treasure that slim little book.

I’ve just found a similar treasure — but having to do with cross-cultural communications.  It’s official title is When Culture Matters, the 55 minute guide to better cross-cultural communication, by Indy Neogy.* True to its title, it’s a brisk one-hour read. Like The Elements of Style, Neogy’s new book is a treasure of clarity, brevity, and useful tools to bridge the cultural communication divide. This should be required reading for any Chief Marketing Officer. This pithy text gives you the big picture and provides precision tools for cultural navigation. Indy might have called this book “The Elements of Effective Cross-Cultural Communication.” Or maybe “Pre-cursor to Innovation.

This esoteric sounding skill set is not a “nice to have.” Innovation means delivering and selling useful new ideas to the market. This simply can’t be done if you can’t communicate — to the locals — in a way they understand and resonate with. It starts with awareness, but it doesn’t end there.

If your organization does business across international borders, or if your brand is marketed around the world, you must cope with culture. Not coping, being blissfully unaware, is essentially trying to paint a landscape with a blindfold on. The democratization of the marketplace enabled by the Internet means anybody — in Three Oaks, Michigan or Hazelmere, UK can sell to the world. That’s good news — but the bad news is selling requires more than just having a great product. It means positioning a brand in ways that local people, say in Bangladesh, can relate to, or at the very least, not be offended by. Of course this is not just companies and brands. Executives, any individuals for that matter, need these skills to deal with people of other cultures. 

This cross-cultural communication stuff is not easy. Multi-nationals have to cope with these issues just within their own business, let alone their customers. Innovation is hard enough when everybody is on the same page. Cross cultural communication is impacted by the very soul of who people are and what they believe. So, if you’re trying to innovate and you’re clashing with never-spoken cultural values, you’re not going to get anywhere. Your teams will be blocked and might not even know why. Once a product is complete, you’ve got the brand communication challenge. Brand messaging is not as simple as “one truth for all”. How a statement is perceived is all about cultural context. The “peace and love” message might be good vibes in Canada, but blasphemy in the Philippines.

The consequences for a lack of cultural awareness are many and profound. Cross-cultural competence to quote the book, “means gaining a bone deep understanding that there is more than one way to perceive, interpret and act in the world.” It’s not as simple as just not showing the feet of your soles in Thailand.

So, if you’ve been barking your shins in some foreign market, or not understanding why your product is doing so well in some places and so poorly in others. Maybe that division in India is under performing…you get the picture.. check out When Culture Matters.


* Indy Neogy is my business parter at KILN. He’s a fascinating guy and his work around the globe makes him uniquely qualified to write this book.

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