The challenges faced by global brands in the era of cultural competence

brands in the era of cultural competence

It’s never been easier – or more damaging – for global brands to get it wrong when communicating with audiences around the world. The old school approach to global brand communications, whereby brands simply broadcast a single message everywhere, is well and truly over. 

Defined by earth-shaking moments and distinct local cultures and identities, the new era is complex. Cultural mishaps have become commonplace, even for the most established brands. Dolce & Gabbana, Starbucks, IKEA… it’s surprising how leading global brands keep offending local audiences through inappropriate creative or messaging. But the solution is clear. To protect their reputation and deliver impactful communications around the world, global brands must become culturally competent.

In this blog, we examine the opportunities and challenges faced by marketers in this new cultural era. We also argue why brands need to make cultural competence an integral part of their campaign process.


Global communications in a time of cancel culture

In an age marked by instant news and cancel culture, global brands must be extremely cautious to avoid getting caught up in controversy. The global forum doesn’t forgive or forget – consumers are more vocal and informed than ever, with the ability to respond instantly through social media and other platforms. 

Take Burger King’s recent blunder for Women’s International Day 2021. With their usual tongue and cheek humour, Burger King UK posted on Twitter that “Women belong in the kitchen” immediately followed by a second post “If they want to, of course. Yet only 20% of chefs are women. We’re on a mission to change the gender ratio.” 

Unfortunately for Burger King, very few of their followers saw the second post and within a few hours they had received a flow of complaints. Even once their audience realised that it was a well-intended if not inappropriate joke, many found the comment unnecessarily provocative. The post was pulled down and Burger King issued an apology statement – but the damage to the brand couldn’t be undone.

Moreover, with the world being so connected, a scandal can erupt in one market and diffuse globally through social media and online news. McDonald’s learned this the hard way in 2019, with their local Portuguese advert for Halloween promoting a “Sundae Bloody Sundae”. This obviously didn’t go down well as it referred to a dark moment in Irish history and quickly made negative headlines, especially in the UK and Ireland. The Portuguese creatives that came up with the idea clearly didn’t know the meaning behind the song Bloody Sunday – they just thought it was another funny pun. This proves how cautious global brands need to be in the modern age by developing a strong sense of cultural awareness, allowing them to see both the local and global picture accurately.


Cultural competence: an opportunity for brands

The key for brands to win in the new global context is to become culturally competent. But what exactly does that mean? Cultural competence is the ability for global brands to truly embrace the modern world, at a macro and micro level, and connect with audiences authentically through considered messaging and creative choices. Cultural competence allows brands to navigate a complex new global context, in which local behaviours and identities meet fast-evolving global trends. 

Beyond the crucial need for brands to protect their reputation, cultural competence is a true opportunity for brands. From understanding the global movements that shape our modern era, to navigating local cultural nuances, to using appropriate language and tone – cultural competence has become a crucial skill for brands to hone if they want their communications to resonate at a local level. By becoming culturally competent, global brands essentially create a bridge between global and local, fully engaging with relevant global moments while staying attuned to local nuances. Creating this global to local bridge allows brands to have a granular understanding of audiences’ tastes, attitudes and beliefs – of what matters or what might offend – all while increasing the global brand equity.


Cultural competence in practice

But how can global brands make cultural competence an integral part of their communications process? The answer lies in the ability for brands to harness global and local insight, by bringing insights into their global campaign process. Too often, brands either neglect to research local consumer trends thoroughly enough, or fail to bring local insights into the greater global plan. They might even carry out the wrong type of local research. In most cases, there’s a disconnect between the creative, planning, and media function, whereby insights might be shared but not integrated into the creative process, or creative will be developed without any consideration for local media uses. Cultural competence puts insights and local needs at the heart of the global campaign planning, creation and localisation process. 


Insight-driven localisation: the key to cultural competence

Markets are becoming more distinct within a fragmented global context, meaning localisation can no longer be an afterthought for brands. At Freedman we help brands get their global-local communications right, ultimately empowering brands to become culturally competent. We achieve this through our unique insight-driven localisation model. But what does that mean?

The big problem that global brands have today is that localisation is treated as an afterthought. Significant time is spent on creative and media strategy, often led by global teams and agencies who are dislocated from local markets. Consider a US based brand, for example. Often, the global team are based at headquarters in the US, and take a US-centric approach to their marketing strategy. They lack the insight into wider markets, meaning the brand can’t communicate in an authentic and impactful way in other parts of the world. 

Localisation is about incorporating local insight into global communications so that in-market activations always resonate with audiences at a local level. To do this, brands need to blend their localisation strategy with their creative and media strategies from the beginning of the campaign process. By prioritising localisation strategy early on, brands can deliver global campaigns that are engaging, compliant, consistent and culturally relevant

A recent campaign for Cartier in China proved how essential it is for local insights to be brought in early on in the campaign process. The brand came under fire for their social campaign for Qixi festival, China’s equivalent of Valentine’s Day. The campaign portrayed what appeared to be same-sex couples, but with accompanying captions that censored the nature of the relationship. For instance, two men were described as being father and son, although they were close in age and clearly couldn’t be – and a lesbian couple were described as “friends”. Evidently, the campaign was meant to showcase a range of relationships, including LGBTQ+ couples. However, once confronted with local censorship, the accompanying copy was tweaked very awkwardly – resulting in online uproar and, ultimately, a brand scandal. 

An insight-driven approach to this campaign would have allowed the creative team to work collaboratively with the local market, preempting any censorship issues and finding ways to deliver the brand’s message of tolerance and inclusion more effectively.


How culturally competent is your brand?

Cultural competence is hard to achieve without the right tools and expertise. Before they embark on a journey to become culturally competent, brand owners must assess their current situation. 

Here are a few questions you might ask yourself when assessing whether your brand is culturally competent:

  • Does your brand do thorough research in local markets: looking at local consumer habits, the competition, local trends and the socio-economic landscape?
  • Are local findings well integrated into your global campaigns process?
  • Do local markets have a say as to the global creative or messaging?
  • Do you have localised brand guidelines and tone of voice guidelines?
  • Are local media requirements sufficiently considered during the creative process?
  • Does your global content calendar include key local and global moments?
  • Does your campaign process allow for local input and validation at different phases – strategy, creative, production, translation?
  •  After your global campaign has been launched, do you carry out a post-mortem, involving local markets?


No matter where you are on your brand’s journey towards cultural competence, Freedman is here to guide you. We help you build the bridge between global and local, allowing your global campaigns to truly work in local markets. To make that happen we draw on a unique breadth of local cultural understanding across brand, corporate, and employee communications and over 30 years of practical expertise in the nuts and bolts of production and delivery.

So, if you want to discuss how we can allow your brand to become culturally competent, don’t hesitate to get in touch.