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Communication Breakdown

International marketing can be tricky. And when marketers send a marketing message that is misunderstood by members of a particular culture, the results can be devastating. This is especially true when you consider how quickly bad news can spread through social and traditional media channels. When dealing with unfamiliar foreign cultures, marketers find that damage control can be a challenge to say the least. Consumers might not be as forgiving of foreign brands that make marketing mistakes, and right now one of Italy's largest luxury brands is about to find out whether or not it will be forgiven its cultural transgressions after a series of promotional videos were not interpreted as intended. Perhaps it's best not to make the mistake in the first place.

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When marketers create messages, they encode an abstract idea into a message and then deliver it via one or more channels/media to an audience. The audience then decodes the message and, through feedback, the marketer finds out whether or not the message was properly decoded. This is a basic communications model that most marketing students learn, and these same students also learn that the whole business of decoding can get tricky, especially in international situations.

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Italian luxury brand Dolce & Gabbana made a series of rather gratuitously stereotypical marketing videos intended for Chinese viewers depicting an Asian woman struggling to eat Italian food with chopsticks. The Italians thought it was pretty funny, but the Chinese felt otherwise. Social media simply exploded with negative postings, and the company was inclined to apologize. Reception has been lukewarm thus far, and since many of these luxury Italian brands have become virtually dependent on the Chinese market, this can become a huge issue for Dolce & Gabbana, which garners almost 20% of its sales from Chinese consumers.

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The lesson here is a simple one. If you are marketing in China (or anywhere else for that matter), make sure that you hire some locals as part of the decision-making team. So much can go wrong when messages are sent across cultures, and globalization provides numerous opportunities to be misunderstood. Sure, social media has created more of a sense of immediacy, but there is no excuse for a bunch of people in Italy making decisions about communications that are to be sent in China. Make sure you have people who understand the culture of your audience on your marketing team or suffer the consequences. Perhaps local agencies should be employed. Apologies only go so far, and so far, it looks like the one that Dolce & Gabbana has made in China has fallen flat. Let's see if revenue follows.


Discussion:  What would you suggest the company do to remedy the situation?