Breaking Down Cultural Barriers With Smart Marketing

If you walk into a crowded room and only talk to one person, you’re not just missing out on everyone else, you’re likely to be passively excluding them. You’re suddenly not ‘for’ them. The same goes for your company. If your marketing only targets people of a certain background or type, you’ll have to work twice as hard to bring everyone else on board.

Marketing across cultural boundaries is tough. It’ll always involve stepping out of your comfort zone and world-view and attempting to see things from an entirely different perspective. But it’s absolutely vital if you want to stay competitive in a multicultural environment, like our city.

We speak your language 

The first and most important step is being able to communicate with your clients in a way they understand. As a business operating in Hong Kong you’ll be marketing to one of the most linguistically diverse countries on Earth. With Cantonese, Mandarin and English all widely spoken, businesses need to be clever in their campaigns if they want to reach the largest audience.

The right tool for the job

Translations can only take you so far. If you’re writing in English and translating into Cantonese or vice versa, the sharp differences between the languages will mean you lose something along the way. Often the message you’re trying to impart has to be so precise and quickly delivered that any error in translation means it will flop.

Smart companies invest in a multi-pronged approach to each campaign, creating separate messaging for every language they’re targeting. This can be more resource intensive but in a country where one in 20 people may not even be able to read your Cantonese-language advertisement, let alone take interest in it, it is necessary.

If you can only choose one language, consider how bilingual people think. If you’re targeting people with emotional appeals, you’ll want to get them in their native language. Even if someone learned a second language very early, they maintain the strongest emotional ties to their first[1]. Making someone buy something based on fond memories, or strong emotional responses will work if it goes straight to their core without any translation on their part. Even the most fluent bilingual will have to take a few extra seconds to grapple with a difficult sentence in another language. Those few seconds could lose you a sale.

Who are your customers?

Is your service something only English-speakers are going to like?  It’s safe to say if you speak English as a first language in Hong Kong you’ve had a radically different upbringing than a Cantonese-speaker.

So is your product or service something that is only going to appeal to the 46 per cent of Hong Kong residents who can speak English? Or the 48 per cent who can speak Mandarin[2]? What does that say about the product itself, or the company that makes it? If you’re throwing everything you can toward marketing to native speakers of another language and you’re getting no market penetration, maybe you need to rethink your approach.

In some cases simply translating existing copy or creating similar ads in another language isn’t going to get you anywhere. Language is the way people make sense of the world, and the structures that make it up are going to shape how they think. Talk to the demographic you want and get to know them. Who knows? Getting a bullseye could only take a little bit of lateral thinking.

[1] When To Use Spanish in Advertising: Marketing to Bilingual Hispanics –

[2] Mandarin overtakes English as Hong Kong’s second language –