Cross-Cultural Miscommunication


This paper focused on cross-cultural communication when entering foreign markets and the steps the firms should take to avoid product failure due to cross-cultural communication breakdown. The study looked into the cross-cultural communication breakdown when Pepsodent tried to market its toothpaste in Southeast Asia and what could have been done to avoid the problem, including a constructing market-focused brief, studying cultural specifics, focusing on the intent of the message, and working with the experts.

Cross-Cultural Miscommunication

The idea behind cross-cultural communication is about generating and sharing meanings among people from different cultural backgrounds. Today’s corporate environment is highly dynamic, complex, and globalized. Therefore, understanding how things are done across different cultures is vital for business leaders and managers. Several multinational firms are emerging with their affiliates, products, and services spread in various jurisdictions worldwide with an increasingly globalized market environment. Contemporary corporations in the globalized economies must have competent management with the awareness, willingness, knowledge, and skill essential to operate and communicate across cultural borders. However, intercultural communication breakdown often happens where the firm’s management is unaware of the divergent cultural beliefs and values in a particular market (Ting-Toomey & Dorjee, 2018). The following essay explores the cross-cultural communication breakdown or miscommunication when Pepsodent tried to market its toothpaste in Southeast Asia. The company’s marketing slogan “it whitens your teeth” was received negatively by the local natives resulting in fewer sales than expected. Pepsodent later established that the natives chew betel nuts primarily to blacken their teeth as they found that attractive (Christiansen, 2017). That sounds interesting, but that is how most companies go wrong due to failure to understand the cross-cultural differences.

Companies and marketers intending to market their products and services overseas must be very sensitive and understand fully foreign cultures in the target market. While the divergence in culture and cultural values between the United States and other parts of the world may appear minor or less significant, marketers or organizations who ignore such differences risk failure to implement their marketing programs effectively (Jensen, 2015).  Study shows that failure to study and understand cultural differences is among the primary reasons for marketing failures in the international markets. For instance, Pepsodent failed to successfully market its toothpaste in Southeast Asia because it promised and emphasized white teeth in a culture where black or yellow teeth symbolize prestige (De Mooij, 2018). Some locals were also offended by the Pepsodent slogan “You’ll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent,” construing it a racial slur. The outcome was a boycott and rejection of Pepsodent toothpaste in Southeast Asia (Christiansen, 2017)

The case of Pepsodent is an illustration of how company’s failures while marketing their product and services in the global markets due to unawareness of the cross-cultural differences. However, much of the semester studies have focused on communication and understanding of the cross-cultural differences when interacting with people from different backgrounds. Challenges often emerge in cross-cultural communication, mainly when ignorance of the divergent cultural beliefs and values (Ting-Toomey & Dorjee, 2018). Speakers in cross-cultural interactions sometimes assume that their belief is right since they have grown up thinking that way. Cross-cultural miscommunication arises from the mistaken beliefs or perception that emics as an ectics, implying that needs and words denote the same thing across diverse cultures (De Mooij, 2018). The miscalculation is common when cultures have the same surface attributes but vary in significant underlying ways.

I am convinced that it is essential for companies operating overseas to learn and manage cross-cultural differences since culture teaches people how to assign meanings to different situations, humans, and things in general, influencing how one constructs meanings when interacting with otherness. There are several approaches to solve cross-cultural miscommunication when doing a product launch in foreign markets, which Pepsodent might have missed.

The first step to defeating cross-cultural market barriers when launching a product or service overseas is to begin by constructing a brief detailing the objectives of the foray, the target audience, and their crucial attributes, and the features and the tone of the marketing materials to be used (Jensen, 2015).  The brief should also entail information concerning the target territories, including the language in which the marketing materials will be translated and the leveraged challenge. A well-researched and planned marketing brief reduces the possibilities of product failure. Intelligent marketing captures the right audience in the right way from the start. The brief marketing document records the campaign’s fundamentals and serves as an information channel to incorporate parties, including cultural differences, into the fold in an expedient manner (Jensen, 2015).  For cross-cultural marketing, all the brief’s materials should be supported by extensive research cutting across the targeted market’s cultural facets; otherwise, the campaign is in jeopardy.

The second step to avoid such product failure as with Pepsodent is to study the targeted overseas market’s cultural specifics before launching your brand. Understanding cross-cultural differences are vital for successful marketing as each has specific lifestyle habits, challenges, and colloquialisms. Even well-established brands can fail in foreign markets if they do not research profoundly into cultural values and norms. Cultural awareness should permeate every aspect of the marketing and product launch, from messages to labels, down to the selected brand name (Jensen, 2015). The Pepsodent marketing and research team could analyze everything, including the slogan and its meaning to the local natives, to ensure success in the new market. Translation and colloquialism aside, companies must also gain an extensive understanding of the target market culture’s societal values, including regional symbols, behaviors and language, international relations, and other facets that can be unearthed (Herbes, Beuthner & Ramme, 2018). The product marketers much develop intimate contact with the niche that is exceptionally well-versed on the culture of the natives to help the firm interpret the meanings of any message before released to the public.

The marketers should also focus on the intent of the message. Approximately over 70% of consumers are likely to purchase a product advertised in their native language. As such, a proper translation is critical (Herbes, Beuthner & Ramme, 2018). However, translation alone may not be enough; brands must trans-created the translation’s material meaning while retaining the tone, intent, context, and style. Though the task is more complicated than it sounds, every region globally may have similar phrases that reflect entirely different connotations. For instance, both the UK and the US speak English, yet terms such as “braces” and “trainer” imply completely different things. Things often get more off and nonsensical when translating English to other languages or using certain phrases or slogans in other regions (Hirsch, 2014). Therefore, if the markers want to capture over 70% of the consumers, they need to sound and behave like the natives (Herbes, Beuthner & Ramme, 2018). Companies must conduct a background search on any slogan, phrase, or translation to establish their meanings for the native people before using them in their product.

The company can also work with experts to beat the cross-cultural communication barriers in overseas markets. When introducing a product to an overseas market, the obstacles can be overwhelming when there is no connection to the region. In such as case, it is critically necessary to work with experts, including localization and trans-creation teams, to ensure that the content, messages, logos, and any other essential materials are up to the standards of the regional market (Herbes, Beuthner & Ramme, 2018). When sourcing for such expert services, the marketers must consider the language the service provider can convert, their track records in offering the services, experience within the target market or industry, and the services available for the particular brand in question. The selected team of experts must be in a position to trans-create the marketing copy and content to video and audio layouts such as podcasts (De Mooij, 2018). Cross-cultural differences occur in the written messages or texts and in other forms of communication such as videos, which many organizations today use to present their products or services. The style and communication format indicates how the content is received and idealized by customers from different cultural backgrounds (Hirsch, 2014). The content and messages and the meaning must resonate with the local culture and cultural values to attain financial success.


Penetrating and positioning your product in overseas markets and gain acceptance is not a walk in the park. Companies must carry out extensive planning, research, and even partnership to develop a marketing campaign that resonates with global customers. Understanding how things are done across different cultures is essential for business leaders and managers that want to extend their operation to the international markets. Consulting to establish the meaning of a slogan, logo, or label the firm intends to use for the local natives in the targeted overseas market is essential to avoid product failure due to cultural unawareness as for the case of Pepsodent.


Christiansen, P. (2017). The New Frontier: 1960. In Orchestrating Public Opinion (pp. 47-55). Amsterdam University Press.

De Mooij, M. (2018). Global marketing and advertising: Understanding cultural paradoxes. Sage.

Herbes, C., Beuthner, C., & Ramme, I. (2018). Consumer attitudes towards biobased packaging–A cross-cultural comparative study. Journal of cleaner production194, 203-218.

Hirsch, D. (2014). Cultural context in marketing communication on the international market. Marketing Instytucji Naukowych i Badawczych, (2 (12)), 39-56.

Jensen, K. R. (2015). Global Innovation and Cross-cultural Collaboration: The Influence of Organizational Mechanisms. Management International/International Management/Gestión Internacional19.

Ting-Toomey, S., & Dorjee, T. (2018). Communicating across cultures. Guilford Publications.