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8 Pitfalls of International Marketing and How to Avoid Them

For even the most accomplished U.S. marketers, the international arena can be a blind spot. Not surprising when you realize just how few US companies actually venture abroad. The U.S. Department of Commerce (USDOC) indicates that, although over 70% of the world’s purchasing power is located outside the U.S., “less than one percent of Americas 30 million companies export a percentage that is significantly lower than all other developed countries. And, of U.S. companies that do export, 58 percent export to only one country.” However, after decades of domestic focus, U.S. companies now seem poised for an international expansion led by mid-sized enterprises.

Already, small and medium-sized companies account for 98 percent of U.S. exporters. According to the USDOC, these companies can expect faster growth in sales, more job creation, higher earnings, and less vulnerability to economic downturns than non-exporting firms experience. No wonder the 2015 International Business Indicator study released by Wells Fargo in April found that 70% of mid-sized companies in the U.S. are planning to ramp up their international marketing efforts over the next 12 months. Most will start by taking the strategies and tactics that have served them so well at home and scaling them for international use. Then, they will spend the rest of the year trying to fathom why the outcome is so different from what they’d expected before they took their brand abroad. You, on the other hand, can spare yourself or your client this costly detour if you address the eight differences outlined below. Although international marketing operates off the same core marketing principles as domestic marketing, it is fundamentally different in practice. The eight areas outlined below reflect 24 years of dealing exclusively with international marketing. They summarize the most common pitfalls that snare marketers as they venture outside of their home markets or to foreign markets.

1. Language

Don’t translate. Good marketing communication does more than convey information. It motivates and inspires. These are often the first attributes to be killed in translation. To reduce this risk, create in English, then adapt (not translate) into required languages in such a way that your message retains its motivational power in addition to reflecting local grammar, usage, and culture. And, whatever you do, don’t try to write in a way that you feel will be easy to translate. That is guaranteed to suck the life right out of your copy in all its languages. For more on dealing with language differences, read: Is Your Brand’s Message Lost in Translation?

2. Culture

Compensate for culture. In addition to language, the wider cultural and behavioral aspects should be understood and reflected in all aspects of the strategy and execution. The concept around which the communication is based must be culturally relevant and acceptable in all markets. It helps to have a methodology in place to understand local markets and to conduct cultural and linguistic checks. This will be a lot easier if you use planners and creatives who are experienced in producing concepts for multi-cultural use.

3. Target

Seek understanding, not just knowledge. In domestic marketing, you share much in common with the target no matter how different their demographics. This can blind you overseas. As a rule of thumb, it’s best to approach new markets by assuming the new target segment is both very dissimilar to you and different from all other market segments you serve. You may be pleasantly surprised to find out otherwise, but starting from this perspective helps to avoid the number one trap of international marketing: assuming the target is pretty much like your domestic target, just communicating in a different language. Market demographics can provide knowledge, but can only get you so far. The rest of the way will require insight gained through a deep understanding of the culture you are visiting and the people who inhabit it.

4. Brand Strategy

Fine-tune your strategy for each market. Strategic aspects like category, value proposition, position, and profile that were developed around your domestic market, target, and competition are unlikely to work as-is. Some parts of the strategy should change for each market and others should not. This requires a strategic architecture designed for international marketing. As a starting point, we try to ensure a global value proposition and localized positioning. For more on international strategy, read: The Fallacy of Global Brand Positioning.

5. Documentation

Don’t wind up debating the creative. Working domestically, there are typically fewer people to get approvals from and they often all share the same cultural references. Because of this, campaign strategies are often loosely documented, but understood implicitly by market manager and agency. You won’t have this luxury working across borders — especially if you need approvals or cooperation from local marketing managers and partners. A sound written strategy is essential to ensure that the campaign addresses the complexities of the various markets and also to get local stakeholders onboard. If you need to get locals to join your team, do it based on the strategy. Without this, the discussion quickly devolves into a highly subjective and inconclusive debate over the creative. For tips on how to avoid getting mired in subjectivity, read: Subjectivity in Advertising: A Losing Proposition.

6. Search and Social

Rethink for each market. The Internet has revolutionized international marketing. However, digital habits can vary from country to country with regard to which social platforms are used and for which purposes. You’ll also need to decide if English language social assets will suffice in foreign markets (in many cases, they won’t) and, if not, how you will set up and manage your foreign language social presence and/or other digital assets. Mobile habits can also vary and need to be accommodated. SEO and buzz monitoring will need to be rethought locally for each market, since simply translating your English keywords won’t be enough. Likewise, search and social advertising plans will need to be developed for each market and language.

7. Project Planning, Process, and Management

Retool for international. There are a lot more moving parts to an international campaign in terms of people, processes, and approvals. This will require more advanced planning and project management to maintain deadlines, quality, and cost control. Well-defined processes help keep things running smoothly.

8. Partners

Go with experience. Companies often start by using their domestic marketing agency to help them abroad because they have already invested in the relationship and it’s comfortable and familiar. The domestic agency then pairs up with a decent translation house and sets off to conquer the world. This might work if language were the only challenge to encounter. However, chances are your success abroad will depend on many other factors, some of which are outlined here. The growth needs of mid-sized companies often exceed the reach of local generalist agencies that lack the strategic expertise to drive growth abroad and/or the international perspective and experience to market across borders. Adding translation to that equation further complicates each factor. The best option for all parties (including the domestic agency) is to delegate international marketing to a company that specializes. For tips on how to choose the right international marketing partner, read: Selecting an International Advertising Agency.


For many products and services, expansion into foreign markets can be a logical step in an overall growth strategy. But, with new opportunity comes new risk — and that should be managed. Any seasoned marketer understands how challenging it is to succeed domestically. Obviously, for brands that cross borders, that challenge is multiplied by every country served. Underestimating the differences between international and domestic marketing is the #1 reason many brands fail to thrive outside their home markets. Attending to the eight areas above should help tip the odds in your brand’s global favor. This list is by no means inclusive, so please share your tips and best practices in the comments.

The article was originally published on TalentZoo as “The 8 Pitfalls of International Marketing and How to Avoid Them”.

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