Marketing internationally to overseas customers requires a level of precision and nuance that isn’t required for the second-nature business of advertising to customers at home. To do business internationally requires marketing across different cultures, languages, customs and legal entities. It is not something you can learn as you go. To succeed as a global business, your marketing and advertising campaigns must be based on diligent preparation and a well-planned strategy.


Language: American English, Global English and No English at All


In order to sell products to people, you must be able to communicate with them. Even if your customers are located in countries where English is the dominant language, the subtleties of their version of the language may still contain important differences from American English. In the United States, we would never refer to “on vacation” as “on holiday” or call a “bathroom” a “water closet”. It is up to you to study the differences between the English we’re used to and that spoken by your customers.


The reality, however, is that your customers may not speak English at all. More than 70 percent of Internet users are not native English speakers. Unless you’re in a position to hire multilingual receptionists, consider live chat. Live chat services are cheap and easy to use. Once installed on your website, your customer will see a box on their end into which they can type their questions, concerns, feedback whatever.


Live chat provides instant communication — unlike an email that comes with a delayed response — without the necessity of a phone call. Recently, a slew of reliable translation tools have been built into live-chat services that make it so that neither you nor your customers need to speak the language of the other.


Understanding International Laws and Regulations


Now that you have a platform that enables you to communicate with your customers, it’s time to put some thought into the less-direct aspects of doing business overseas. Even if you do not have a physical presence there, you are subject to the laws and regulations of the market nation.


Laws vary wildly from country to country, region to region. Regulations regarding shipping, distribution, legality of certain items and ministries or offices that handle these regulations are complicated and can often seem arbitrary. The rules regarding advertising and marketing are often even murkier.


For example, the United States is lax when it comes to using words like “best” or “better” in marketing and ad campaigns. But countries like Germany, Belgium and France are incredibly strict when it comes to language in competitive advertising. Many countries also have laws regarding contests, sweepstakes, giveaways, coupons and premium offers. Again, it is up to you to know the rules and regulations in your target country.


Customs: The Other Rule of Law


Even if you follow the letter of the law, your business can suffer irreparable damage by violating that country’s unwritten laws — or customs. In March of 2014, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addressed a group of wealthy Jewish donors. When discussing the Israeli/Palestinian crisis, he drew gasps when referring to the “occupied territories”. Many pro-Israel activists abhor that phrase, and instead prefer to say “disputed lands.”


Even an American talking to Americans in America can stumble over culturally sensitive speech and action regarding ethnic origin, perceptions of history and nationalistic sensitivities. When doing business overseas, the landmines can be much less obvious.


In one instance, a toothpaste manufacturer got into hot water with an ad campaign in Southeast Asia that glorified bright, white teeth — unaware that there, dark teeth are held in high esteem.


Colors and symbols are ingrained in many cultures. In Japan, China and parts of Africa, for example, white — not black — is the color of mourning. Shipping and advertising laws are codified and can be navigated by legal professionals. Cultural nuances are not and can not. Make sure the logos, language, colors and emblems on your website and packaging mesh with local customs.




Finally, the content of your ads need to be localized. Resist the urge to use a one-size-fits-all boilerplate template for customers in different regions. Just as a job applicant would be wise to tailor each resume and cover letter to the specific job for which he or she is applying, business owners must consider their ads as their resumes. Yes, the Internet is shrinking the world and, yes, America drives the Internet, but there is a reason that ads look remarkably different even in culturally familiar places like Australia and England.


The reality is, doing business outside of the United States requires customized, targeted ads specific to each locality in which you sell your product. Differences in laws, language, customs, rules and culture are all snares that can snag even the most savvy marketer. As an American businessperson, you must understand your product and your market in order to succeed. When your business goes global, you must understand the people, governments, cultures and ethnicities that exist where those products are marketed. To do business, you must first do your homework.