As marketers, we know one of the most powerful things we can do is appeal to people’s emotions. But consumers’ emotional responses to our products, services and marketing efforts can be very different depending on their culture.

That’s why it’s essential to understand your audience’s language, history, art, food – all those essential parts of culture – before you plan any type of marketing effort. Experiential marketing efforts in particular can fall flat if you don’t tailor them to the needs and interests of your audience.

To demonstrate why understanding culture is so important for marketers, we turned to the work of Dr. Gilbert Clotaire Rapaille, founder and CEO of Archetype Discoveries Worldwide. Rapaille is an author and highly sought-after speaker who pioneered a marketing methodology called the Culture Code (and wrote a very popular book by the same name).

In this article, Rapaille describes the Culture Code as a way to unearth hidden truths within a culture using psychoanalysis and a deep understanding of people’s norms and values. He works to identify what he calls “imprints,” or positive impressions made on people from a very young age. Once he’s discovered those deep-seated impressions that appeal to the most fundamental and simple parts of their brains, he helps brand understand how to use that information to create highly successful marketing campaigns.

One of the most fascinating examples Rapaille shares is from his work with Folgers coffee. After extensive study, he found that Americans develop a positive association (or imprint) with the smell of coffee from a very early age. “The whole culture imprint is of mother preparing breakfast in the kitchen and the feelings evoked: I am going to be fed, she loves me, I am home and I am safe,” he says in the article.

He told Folgers they needed to market the smell of their coffee rather than its taste. At first the company thought he was crazy. But the strategy worked so well that even today, you rarely see anyone sip Folgers coffee in commercials.

It’s important to note that this marketing strategy doesn’t work in other countries such as Italy and Japan. That’s because young children are less likely to develop this positive association with the smell of coffee early in life. The strategy for marketing coffee must be completely different – and based off local consumers’ cultural associations with coffee – for any strategy to be successful.

Another classic and simple example of the importance of understanding culture first and planning marketing campaigns second comes from Gerber. When they first started selling baby food in Africa, sales were almost non-existent.

They didn’t bother to learn about local customs and culture before they started marketing their products. As a result, they failed to realize that their packaging – the smiling, healthy-looking baby that was so appealing to American audiences – was going to drive African consumers away in droves.

Why? At the time, the majority of people in the areas Gerber was selling baby food were illiterate. As a result, companies typically put pictures of what was in the jars on the labels. Mothers were worried that Gerber’s jars contained ground-up humans rather than peas, carrots and chicken.

Is your brand looking to introduce products and services to audiences with different cultural backgrounds and values than your traditional audience? How can you make sure your marketing efforts will appeal to them? The simple answer is that you need to understand their culture first and organize your marketing efforts (including any experiential marketing activations) second. Here are a few tips for doing that.

Immerse yourself in the culture

The best way to learn about the norms and values of another culture is to immerse yourself in all aspects of it. Read books (fiction and non-fiction), newspapers and magazines written by people who are part of that culture. Watch popular TV shows, movies, videos and other visual media. Study the language and eat the food (that should be a fun one). Make sure you understand what appeals to people – and just as important, what offends them.

Enlist friends and employees

It can be hard to learn about the culture of Mexico or eastern Canada, for example, if you don’t live there and don’t speak Spanish or French. This is where friends and employees can be extremely valuable.

Tap into other people’s wisdom as much as you can without becoming annoying. Chances are your friends would love to teach you about their community and the places they came from. Talk to them about their neighborhood, country, identity or other key facets of who they are. Shares meals with them, ask questions and find ways to participate in cultural celebrations.

If you have employees who are bicultural and bilingual, make them central to your experiential marketing efforts. If you have international offices, make sure you give them a leadership role in planning your activations.

When it comes time to plan the experience, make sure your team helps you think through every aspect of your event. Props and activities that appeal to Americans may seem boring or offensive to people in other countries. Décor items and colors may have connotations you don’t realize. Staff members may need to greet and converse with people in ways they aren’t accustomed to. Leave no cultural stone unturned in your organizing efforts.

Hire the right experiential marketing agency

You’ll want to hire an experiential marketing agency to help with your activations regardless of your goal or audience. But if your campaign seeks to reach people who belong to a culture other than your own, it’s a great idea to work with an agency that has experience working with the populations you want to reach. Ideally, some of the staff members at that agency should be bilingual and bicultural. They’ll help you tailor your messaging and activities so they have the best chance of appealing to your intended audience.

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