Co-Authored By Josie Isaacson, Gonzaga University School of Law, J.D. 2015, Magna Cum Laude; Washington State Bar Pending.
Last month, global sportswear company Adidas introduced a new sneaker design featuring a blue and yellow floral pattern. While unsymbolic to most global consumers, the design has a completely different connotation in Sweden. A very similar blue and yellow flower design is the logo for the Sweden Democrats Party (Sverigedemokraterna, SD) – a nationalist party described by some as racist. To add insult to injury, Adidas launched the new shoe design the same week the SD launched an unpopular anti-beggar campaign in Sweden’s capital Stockholm utilizing similar designs, which was shut down due to widespread public criticism.
It should come as no surprise that a product’s name or design may be perceived differently depending on the cultural lens thru which it is viewed. Cultural misunderstandings can have potentially devastating consequences for a company and its products as it can ruin product launches and marketing efforts no matter how much financial resources and time is spent on foreign marketing and promotional efforts.
So how can a business prevent foreign cultural misunderstanding?
The first way to prevent cultural misunderstanding is to understand how it manifests. Typically, it appears in three ways:
- Color Symbolism. Color symbolism can vary widely from country to country and often can take on unexpected diametric meanings. For example, the color purple in Western cultures such as the United States has a strong connection to royalty, wealth, and honor in the military (e.g. Purple Heart). However, in other cultures such as Brazil and Thailand, purple represents mourning.
- Design Symbolism. The same global variation in meaning can be shown for design features of a product or trademark, where a design element may be innocuous in one culture but negative in another. For example, a logo with a blue eye in the United States has no apparent meaning by itself. However, in other cultures, a blue eye is commonly linked to the negative meaning of the “evil eye” curse.
- Translation Differences. Differences in translation between languages are the most common form of cultural misunderstanding. For example, when the American Dairy Association’s popular “Got Milk?” slogan expanded into the Mexican market, the slogan lost its appeal when the Spanish translation of the slogan read “Are you lactating?”
Next, it is important to do your homework, namely prior foreign market research. Any amount of time and money invested in foreign cultural research prior to introducing a new product in a new market can be a lifesaver. Prior research can be anything from a simple Internet search, to performing formal trademark clearance, to even organizing a focus group of people from the target foreign market. Here is a breakdown of these measures:
- Conduct an Internet Search: An Internet search is by far one of the cheapest research methods to identify cultural differences in words, colors, and symbols in the target market. If Adidas had searched Google.se or a local Swedish search engine, they might have become aware of the flower symbol through searching for “blue and yellow flower” or an image search of similar symbols. However, an Internet search alone will not provide comprehensive results without utilizing other search and research methods.
- Trademark Clearance: A formal trademark clearance search can expose any potential conflicting registered trademarks being used in the target market. For example, SD has a number of design mark registrations of their flower symbol at both the Swedish Patent and Registrations Office (Patent-och Registreringsverket – PRV) and at the European Union trademark office (Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (OHIM)). By identifying these conflicts early, a trademark clearance search can not only reduce the risk of cultural miscommunication, but also limit the risk of foreign trademark infringement.
- Focus Groups: Organizing a focus group can be the best way to get the real feel for how the consumer in the target foreign market will perceive and respond to a new product or service being introduced in the country. Many cultural differences are subtle or varied enough that an Internet or trademark clearance search may not reveal them. While relatively more expensive, obtaining personal cultural knowledge from conducting a local focus group survey can be very informative and help to ensure a product or service overcomes cultural miscommunication.
What’s the Takeaway? While it is unknown what prior research steps Adidas took before introducing the blue and yellow floral design in Sweden, relatively simple prior research measures could have been taken to prevent their failed foreign product launch. As each foreign market has its own sensitivities, there is the potential for cultural miscommunication in every country. Taking steps to research the potential meanings or perceptions to a mark or design prior to launching the product or service abroad will not only save a company money and time but also protect against bad publicity.