Article Comments: “In Marketing Across Cultures: Are You Enlightening the World or are You Speaking in Tongues?”

Oosthuizen, Thomas. 2004. “In Marketing Across Cultures: Are You Enlightening the World or are You Speaking in Tongues?” Design Issues 20(2):61-72.

Oosthuizen’s article presents a helpful synopsis of the considerations necessary for designing a meaningful and adaptable brand image in the age of globalization. It touches on many of the challenges and approaches to designing marketing messages that companies still face when building a brand image. Challenges that seasoned consultants and brand experts still talk about to this day (Steenkamp 2017). An interesting blend of semiotics and cognitive science, Oosthuizen’s article is helpful for anyone who wants to dip their feet in the complexities of building a truly global brand.

Oosthuizen begins by elaborating upon the double-edged sword that globalization has created for marketing strategies. Marketing messages must straddle the demands of economies of scale integral to international distribution with the customs, needs, and peculiarities of local points of sale. The global business faces a unique challenge: “to successfully customize a message to a specific market in a given socio-economic and cultural context, while retaining the appeal of a global cultural icon” (2004: 61). Most brands find themselves somewhere between two extreme poles to branding: 1) creating a marketing unique to every single society, or; 2) creating marketing that looks at universal symbols and ideas, and customizes them to accentuate unique cultural differences (2004: 62).

According to Oosthuizen, there are a number of key characteristics that define successful marketing communication:

  • Relevance to target market needs (telling consumers what they believe they need to know to purchase a given product or brand);
  • Language (using a language the market understands); and
  • Empathy (employing a stylistic and idiomatic manner the market likes and finds appealing to its emotions, senses, and intellect) (2004: 64).

The area that causes the most concern in global marketing is the area of empathy. As Oosthuizen puts it, “without empathy, the magic or shared meaning is not possible. This magic adds value to a brand” (2004: 64). The importance of emotional bonding in communicating successfully with a market is paramount. The challenge is conceptually simple, but practically exceptional: create global brand icons by elevating concepts and ideas from a given culture to the global sphere, or to a relatively “multi-cultural” sphere, and by interpreting and appealing uniquely to individual cultures (2004: 65).

Oosthuizen presents a scheme, building off of Kurt Lewin and the Rokeach value theory, that might be applied when trying to develop marketing communication for cross-cultural application without having to recreate marketing communications from scratch for different cultures. The intention is to unify diverse audiences rather than divide them. Something that “appeals to different cultures, without losing the central strategic thread” (2004: 67). The first principle of the scheme is that a person always occupies a certain place in their “life space”, and within this space, moves towards goals that constantly effect behaviour and perception. The second principle regards the ranking of different kinds of values that people can hold which impact their behaviour, and therefore responses to brands and products. Oosthuizen calls this marriage of concepts, “the core value model”.

The core value model, as Oosthuizen puts it, “assists the adaptation of global brands to local markets and customers without losing the universality of approach needed to cross cultures. It aids the identification of elements that should be retained in brands when they are changed, and which should be updated. Finally, it highlights areas where cultural differences in branding are important and can be leveraged for greater market penetration” (2004: 68).

The model sets out a system of tiers by which symbols can be ranked by certain degrees of universality. “Core values” are the most universal values common to all cultures, including things like life and death, sun and moon, pro-creation, blood, man and woman. The second tier constitutes “Learned/secondary or socialized values”, which are values true to certain cultures (e.g., religion, cultural norms, folklore), but also values that have been established through universal communications (e.g. global brands, political symbols, colour symbolism, reference groups or celebrities). This second tier provides the opportunity to take a global core message and localize it. The third tier is “Peripheral”. These values change fast, and usually are connected to the quotidian trends (e.g., fashion and music styles). These kinds of symbols drive brand evolution, and act as opportunities for the brand to update its appeal to markets, to modernize and rejuvenate.

According to Oosthuizen, “generally, core values and learned values are best used to discriminate between brands, whereas peripheral values are generic but add a contemporary dimension to a piece of communication” (2004: 68).


Most multicultural design still operates from a base of lowest common denominator images. This kind of communication often satisfies the first two criteria for successful communication, but is not really successful in engendering consumer empathy—“leveraging this third dimension is what creates real brand or communication power” (2004: 71). According to Oosthuizen’s article, there exists a major opportunity today to create truly global icons that transcend cultures, and yet still retain appeal to local cultural tastes.

Works Cited:

Oosthuizen, Thomas. 2004. “In Marketing Across Cultures: Are You Enlightening the World or are You Speaking in Tongues?” Design Issues 20(2):61-72.

Steenkamp, Jan-Benedict. 2017. Global Brand Strategy: World-wise Marketing in the Age of Branding. Springer.

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