Understanding and Bridging the Cultural Divide


Many people mistakenly consider Latin America a homogenous entity instead of the complex mix of cultures and linguistic preferences it actually is. As someone who supports communications campaigns throughout the region, I advise clients that what works in one country in the region will not necessarily work in another. Successful communications campaigns are those that keep linguistic, cultural, market and other local differences in mind. Here are some tips to follow to ensure the tone, timing, language and nature of outreach are relevant to each market.

Look before you leap: Before launching a communications campaign in a particular market, we always research local conditions, among them the industry landscape, competitors, audience characteristics and how stakeholders get their information. We often find that the awareness, perception and reputation levels of our client companies, executives and brands vary widely from one country to another, due perhaps to a specific regulatory environment or a recent local scandal adversely affecting a client or the industry or business climate within which it operates. By conducting country-specific stakeholder audits, we ensure we are aware of local communications challenges before we recommend a strategy.

Get the timing right. While most countries in the region celebrate Valentine’s Day on February 14, just as the U.S. does, Brazil celebrates it on June 12. And while Mexico, Central America and theCaribbean are in the Northern Hemisphere, most of the rest of the countries where we help position our clients are in the Southern Hemisphere: that means it’s summer when in the US, it’s winter. By keeping a calendar of country-specific holidays, school vacation periods and other milestones, we ensure that the materials we distribute are seasonally relevant and that we do not make the mistake of recommending a product launch or event when people are, say, celebrating their country’s independence day.

Country loyalties trump regional identity. Announcements about a company’s or brand’s entrance into Latin America is no longer is the local newsmaker it once was in the region. For local media outlets to pay attention, they want country-specific plans and data—and ideally, a spokesperson familiar enough with their market to provide local insights. Keeping this in mind, we take the time to localize pitches, press releases and other materials by piggybacking on country-specific trends and hot topics and by incorporating or highlighting country-relevant data so communications are truly newsworthy to each market.

Don’t believe in “neutral Spanish.” It is often joked that Spanish divides Latin American countries as much as it unites them. Words with a particular meaning in one country could mean something different—even insulting–in another, as a chocolate manufacturer found out the hard way when it realized the Mexican word for “caramel” it was using in its communications was also an Argentine term for part of the female anatomy. In some countries  is the informal term for “you,” while in others it is vos. And certain terms, food terms in particular, vary widely from one country to another, since they can come from local indigenous languages instead of Spanish. Adapting Spanish-language communications to the linguistic preferences of each country will ensure messages are understood and received the way they are intended.

Cultural norms can vary widely. Certain technologies, such as mobile communications, have been adopted quickly in certain Latin American countries and slowly in others. Social hierarchies are informal in some countries, while in others the formal “usted” is normally used to address people of different socioeconomic levels than one’s own. Communication styles also vary widely, from the brutally direct to the frustratingly indirect. While our preferred style of communication may be different, we have to be aware of these cultural nuances in order to maximize our ability to inform, motivate and persuade local audiences in fulfillment of our clients’ business objectives.