International Marketing Communication – Key Issues and Challenges

When first starting-up an organization, launching a new product or service or simply reminding customers that the organization exists, firms need to educate consumers. This education comes in the form of marketing communication, which is otherwise known as promotion. Promotion is an organization’s articulation of messages it wants to send to target audiences to achieve business objectives. The promotion mix or integrated marketing communications (IMC) consists of advertising, sales promotion, trade shows, personal selling, direct selling and public relations. Without doubt, investment in one or more of these methods of communication will increase the firm’s costs, and for this investment to be a profitable one, the marketer must know the purpose of promotion. The Chartered Institute of Marketing claims that “the purpose of any form of marketing communication is to provide a set of information to your target audience in a way that encourages a positive, or buying, response. The purpose of promotion is defined as a mode of communication to attain product awareness from each market segment informing them of the product attributes that the segment perceives fulfils its needs. Through this definition the difference between international and domestic marketing communications can be identified. The only difference between domestic and international marketing is that all marketing activities: product, price, place and promotion take place in more than one nation. However, this one difference can result in many barriers international marketers have to deal with when promoting their organizations.

The problems associated with international marketing communications are numerous. Generally, when promoting to international consumers a marketer will have to face problems relating to language, culture, the availability of local resources and the level of economic development, competition, media choice and variety of media in target market, local laws and the company’s objectives. Each of these factors will be considered carefully. When entering a foreign market one of the most obvious issues effecting communication to consider is language.

When attempting to send a message language will be the main form of communication, whether it is in personal selling, advertising, or any other method used in IMC. Language is always going to be a challenge though it may seem like a harmless problem. This is supported by the abundant number of studies conducted examining the relationship between communication and linguistics. When considering linguistics there are various areas that must be examined these are: (1) the different languages or accents used in the country; (2) the level of literacy; (3) product or service name choices; (4) the use of humor. The problem of linguistics entails various levels, the first level in the problem that there are different languages in different countries, the second level deals with the idioms in one country and the third level includes subtle differences in speech like expression, vernacular and accent. When devising a promotion campaign for foreign markets one cannot use a single language. Furthermore, it is important to note that the choice of language may affect branding choices and the names of products and services. For instance, Toyota had not realized the consequences of naming their car MR2 which translates offensively in French.

In addition to these three levels, the rate of literacy is a crucial factor to consider in international marketing communications whether it be a high or low rate. A low level of literacy can significantly impede communication and the marketer must handle this problem through creativity for example making sure that an image sends a clear meaning in advertising and the use of verbal media. On the other hand, a high level of literacy raises the issues of bilingual communication. This is seen in many countries where in addition to their mother tongue another language is understood and frequently used. Typically this language is English. The inclusion of foreign language is a growing trend throughout the world. It’s important to consider language, foreign or domestic, because the effectiveness of a message is based on how well words and other symbolic representations are utilized and received. Language may be the most obvious problem associated with international marketing communications but culture is the most important problem.

Although globalization is making the world more homogenous, differences between cultures are becoming more obvious. These differences impact firms greatly as success in the 21st century is reliant on being aware and sensitive to cultural dissimilarities. Indeed, successful marketing communication is dependent on understanding your customer’s behaviors which are culturally bound. To understand cultures of different countries one must realize that culture is learned and not inherited by an individual, the only way to understand an individual’s behavior is through culture, and finally culture and communication are inseparable as humans communicate in a way that is understood and accepted by their culture. Thus, to communicate effectively with a person of a different culture they must be able to decode your message. This phenomenon can be represented by explaining how slight differences may make a form of marketing communication that was successful in one country unsuccessful in another. For example, in the US and many countries to surpass the group is sought-after, however in Japan where they have a collectivist culture “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” General Mills offended Japanese consumers by featuring a television advert stating that making cake was as easy as making rice, which to the Japanese involves great skill. Business blunders due to cultural misinterpretation are innumerable and so for organizations to be more sensitive and understand the barriers that must be faced they need to know the cultural dimensions.

Culture is a problematic issue for marketers because it’s ill-defined and not easily understood. Due to the fact that culture is not easily understood assessing markets based on the cultural dimensions is useful. There are eight cultural dimensions identified (Pewer 2010), however only five of the most important dimensions will be discussed. The first dimension is directness versus indirectness. Directness refers to how directly an advert or any other form of communication stresses the benefits of purchasing the product or service. This is seen as too aggressive for high context implicit countries like Japan. High context implicit cultures focus on nonverbal communication and prefer messages to be sent in a polite and indirect way. The second cultural dimension is humor. Humor is a phenomenon that is shared by all countries; however it’s difficult to convey between countries. What is humorous in one country maybe offensive in another, for instance, British sarcasm may have an ill-effect across countries. The third cultural dimension examines gender roles; the most lucid example is women’s roles in different cultures. Marketers must carefully consider gender roles when communicating messages about an organization and its products or services.

Another cultural dimension is the level of sophistication required in messages. For example, European countries require a high level of professionalism in messages while Americans respond to more an emotional appeal. Finally the last cultural dimension is information-content versus “fluff”. This dimension is similar to level of sophistication however it refers to how all the content in the message is transmitted. Some cultures react more positively to over exaggeration with no clear evidence to prove what is put in the picture. Other cultures prefer hard cold facts and do not appreciate “puffery” conveyed in messages. A marketer must consider all these dimensions and how they apply to cultures a more credible and well-recognized scholar Hoffstede also identifies cultural dimensions. The next barrier to be observed is the availability of local resources and the level of economic development.

The level of economic development is the most significant environmental factor to which the marketer must alter various marketing tasks. A country’s economic development is its level of economic growth and level of consumer demand. Both factors are important issues to be considered by an international marketer when promoting a good or service. Consequently, the level of economic development presents challenges as the marketer must adjust the message to be communicated to the country’s level of understanding. This adjustment requires the ability to examine carefully the level of economic development to understand what needs must be met when communicating the message. Furthermore, a marketer is obliged to study the growth potential of the economy in order to prepare for shifts and change marketing communication in accordance to shifts. An additional issue that must be considered which is also linked with economic development is availability of local resources.

The local resources needed in terms of marketing communications are salespeople and local advertising expertise. Moreover, firms need to understand other local resources like topography, natural resources and the climate or the environment in general to be more informed in all integrated marketing communications techniques. Firstly, availability of local salespeople will be examined. A firm’s decision on the ratio of local salespeople or domestic sales representatives assigned to the foreign country depends upon the availability of qualified locals and the size of the communication operation. Expatriates are hired if the product is highly technical or requires extensive knowledge of the company and its products, which would make the issue of limited local human resources minor. Nonetheless, local salespeople usually are favored because they go beyond legal and cultural barriers. Other benefits of hiring local salespeople are that they’re more well-informed about the foreign country’s business structure; they can lead the company through distribution systems and referral networks they are unaccustomed to; and finally local salespeople are less costly to maintain. Additionally it’s useful to use local sales people in countries where there are many languages as you’ll need local salespeople to express your message in the local tongue. Consequently, lack of local salespeople in a foreign country could pose a serious problem in extremely unfamiliar markets.

Other local resources are areas people usually communicate about in a business setting (especially in business to business settings) which were discussed above topography, natural resources and climate. Topography refers to transportation and logistics. Foreign businesses may transport goods in completely different ways than the firm would in its domestic market this could be due to limited or more advanced resources for transportation. For instance, a Canadian firm seemed ignorant to a South American firm it was doing business with for wanting to transport goods overland. In Canada railroads and highways are excellent but in South America this is not always the case. The South American company wanted to ship goods through waterways an option which the Canadian firm overlooked as their own waterways freeze due to cold climate. In this situation, the firm not only lacked knowledge about local resources and consequently didn’t communicate the right message but also were affected by self-reference criterion (SRC) which could be a barrier to communication, however on part of the international marketer.

An international marketer must have the ability to adapt their perception to see events from the receiver’s point of view. A major obstacle to success in international marketing is a person’s self-reference criterion. This applies to all elements of the marketing mix and not just to promotion. Pewer (2010) defines self-reference criterion as the tendency of individuals, often unconsciously, to use the standards of one’s own culture to evaluate others. When a challenge or problem arises in another culture the tendency of any person is to react depending on knowledge they have gained over a life-time, based on behavior acceptable in their culture. As in the example illustrated above the marketer made the mistake of assuming resources in the foreign country were similar to resources in their domestic market. This mistake is also often made when considering the level of media in an international market.

Media may appear to be the same in nearly all nations, as we all use the same means of communication. However, there are numerous difficulties, aspects that must be considered and variations in media from one country to another. Additionally, limitations due to media availability can force an international marketer to think of alternative strategies that may not be as attractive to send a message. Limitations in media are due to availability, appropriateness, coverage and cost. The first limitation is availability refers to the amount of media that is accessible so that the international marketer can conduct one or more of the elements in integrated marketing communication, namely advertising, public relations and some choices in sales promotion. In some countries media is available however there are restrictions on the use of media in terms of both content and frequency of use. For instance, in Italy, television adverts must be no more than ten showings a year and each showing must be at least ten days apart. The second issue in media is coverage. An international marketer must consider if the message will reach all sectors of the population and if information on coverage is actually available. If a marketer cannot achieve full coverage with one form of media than the firm must employ more than one form which will add to cost, which is the third consideration. Cost of media can be extremely high in some countries, which also limits the amount of media usage. In Britain the demand for advertising time is so high that it has cost a huge escalation in advertising prices. All in all, the international marketer must think of creative ways to send a message through despite limitations in media. The last issue that can have a huge bearing on international marketing communication efforts are local laws and legal constraints.

The legal system of a foreign country affects all business operations and presents many challenges for international marketers as each country’s laws are so different and multifaceted. These multifaceted laws also apply to components of integrated marketing communications. This can be exemplified by examining laws in various countries one example is European countries price discrimination is illegal so coupons are banned. In other countries it’s illegal to advertise certain products and services. Likewise its comparative advertising laws differ from nation to nation even though they’re in the same region. For instance in Europe laws dealing with comparative advertising differ, in Germany if you use comparative advertising competitors can file a law suit against you, whilst in Spain, UK and Portugal it’s authorized, and in other countries like Belgium comparative advertising is strictly banned. Furthermore, there are legal restrictions on the types of communication used for specific products. In many countries, advertising of toys, liquor, tobacco and pharmaceuticals is restricted. The introduction of medical products in international markets; the difficulties of communication in medical industries due to legal constraints. There are regulations of the communication material provided by medical companies. Issues about what information needs to be included i.e. warnings, side-effects and other health related, what allegations can be made, and what can and cannot be said vary from country to country. Varying regulations pose a serious difficulty for international marketers. Finally, an issue the international marketer definitely must consider are the aims of the international promotional campaign.

A marketer must first and foremost consider what the objectives of international communication are, what does the firm want to achieve?. The objectives of a marketing program significantly vary. Some firms wish to establish new brands; others are launching a new product-line extension, and several firms simply want to enhance their image. No matter what their objective is these marketing problems demand attentive marketing research and creative advertising strategies in local and global markets.

Conclusively, the issues an international marketer must consider and infinite and yet every decision is crucial to the success of the firm in the global market. What most scholars advise international marketers to do is look for the similarities between markets and then look for differences. Equally important is keeping an open mind and preventing factors like ethnocentrism and self-reference criterion from impacting your decisions as a marketer. No matter how difficult the job due to the numerous factors discussed in the text the successful end result will bring prosperity, wealth and a sense of achievement to the foreign nation, investing firm and international marketer. All in all no matter where a firm locates it should respect and value the new markets it enters to gain respect from their international customers. As Winston Churchill proclaimed “we do not covet anything from any nation except their respect”.

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