“When in doubt, make a western”, John Ford used to say. But Ford was Irish American and grew up in Maine, far from the American Old West and the red dust of Monument Valley.
Cultural appropriation it a thorny topic lately, especially when that appropriation arises from a commercial opportunity, or the (un)happy occasions when a creator falls in love with some aesthetics without understanding their real significance and roots.
We are constantly consuming things that are tailored to us. From a movie set in 1800s France, filmed in English, to how food packages display their texts and colours. Every tiny detail that fills our daily lives is carefully designed to meet our expectations — we could think that a cheeseburger tastes the same at a McDonald's in London and in Beijing. In fact, not only the flavours are slightly different — the presentation is highly determined by culture.
Table of contents
- Cultural adaptation vs. Cultural appropriation
- From burgers to greens: How do culture tropes have an impact on web design?
- Website localization to reach customers: Yes or no?
- The Wrangler case: USA vs. Canada
Cultural adaptation vs. Cultural appropriation
So you might say that when a brand expands its sales across several countries or continents, cultural appropriation is the only way to get different cultures consuming the same things. That’s one way to see it, but we could also say that it reflects how brands need to adapt their products to cultures when they don’t easily fit.
It’s a moral dilemma — are companies trying to sell a product in disguise like a Trojan horse, intended to introduce new things to people that didn’t need or expect them? Or is it that brands are honoring other cultures, and moulding and adapting to better address a new audience?
Cultural differences set people, brands and customers apart, but they can also become the key to reunion, a successful product launch, or a smooth integration in a new market. Addressing cultural diversity is an essential part of sales and communication strategies now more than ever, because an international plan is bread and butter for every company that wants to grow.
Tiny details in language, colours, online browsing and shopping habits, primary offerings, advertising, seasonal opportunities and holidays can determine if a brand’s strategy succeeds or fails in a foreign market.
According to some surveys, around 56% of consumers say that being able to find information in their own language is more important than price when buying online, while 42% of people never make a purchase in websites that are not available in their own language. That is even more relevant in countries like China, were 95% of consumers rather buy on websites adapted to Chinese. And right now no brand wants to miss out on the second biggest economy in the world.
Yes, that means that counting on native speakers and mastering another language is important, but also that what consumers want above all things is to feel proximity. Their own language and culture inspire immediate trust and reassurance in them. And that goes beyond words.
Do people in some countries prefer a more formal or informal approach? What type of photographs seem more aesthetic and pleasant to them? Are there some taboo words, symbols or colours? How do they perceive online security and payment methods?
Of course there’s a lot to take into account, but here we are going to analyze in detail how cultural adaptation works for website design and the development of localized strategies.
From burgers to greens: How do culture tropes have an impact on web design?
A comparison made between retail websites, like the popular Taobao e-commerce marketplace, across three Asian countries (China, India and Thailand) revealed that despite sharing some commonalities their subcultural differences were key in terms of website design.
Cultural dimensions like masculinity/femininity, power, uncertainty avoidance and individualism/collectivism turned out to be determinant in the way consumers perceive an online shop, but those things are mostly reflected visually and in the text.
Economy, politics, and technology advancement are other cultural aspects that could be influential in the consumer perception of any website — the more you grasp a culture, the more successful your international expansion will be.
A case study: McDonald’s localization
Let’s see how many things can change when you open the homepage of McDonald’s website in several countries around the globe.
For starters, the mainland: of course the McDonald’s USA version is a feast of meat, bacon and gigantic fonts, because their consumers are used to bright, huge and noisy advertising.
Now let’s travel to Finland, a region more known for a healthy lifestyle where fast food chains like McDonald’s seem to play a minor cultural role. But they are trying — they have adapted the design, so the homepage shows a green beverage above the fold that would make the average Minnesotan gasp in horror. The background is also more simple and elegant, a black colour that brings attention to each item.
And, finally, let’s look at Japan. The products are displayed like most Japanese menus, with tiny pics that resemble the traditional fake food displayed in restaurant windows. Also, one of the star products isn’t a hamburger at all, but a kind of pastry very popular among Japanese consumers. Less bright tones, well-balanced colour palettes, and prominent prices — the only way a foreign fast food chain can compete among very cheap local food.
If brands adapt their products, for example through a hamburger recipe, it’s obvious that they also need to change the way they show them online. Not all audiences search items in the same way. It’s just as basic as the old rule of knowing your client in order to anticipate their desires… and avoid what annoys them.
Website localization to reach customers: Yes or no?
As international strategies are essential for expanding any brand or business to new markets, tailoring the contents and catalogs to other languages and cultures seems pretty basic.
The thing that can cause alarm among users is geotargeting, or using personal data to determine where users are making their searches from, and therefore adapt the website content for them.
But it must be considered that many consumers use geolocation blockers nowadays, and their IP might appear in Norway while actually they are in New Zealand. If businesses use IP geotargeting to adapt online content they could make huge mistakes — what if a Chinese person that is visiting the US wants to buy something in an online shop, but he can’t choose the Chinese version because it is being determined by the IP geoposition?
Using website localization is a powerful strategy to reach specific users and markets, but the choice must always be in the hands of the consumer. A list of countries to choose from in the homepage or a side menu can avoid losing customers because they couldn’t find the website in the language they like best.
Content localization is just what we have talked about before: adapting products to a region through language and culture. According to a recent survey, localization helps to turn visitors into real customers, because it improves usability and satisfaction levels, but only 26% of retailers prioritize improving content localization. And that’s understandable — when a company has to adapt its catalog to more than a hundred of countries and dozens of languages, the efforts and costs ahead can dissuade even the bravest marketers.
We are not only talking about translations and marketing messages here. There is a huge amount of product content that must be synchronized among global and local plans, and several headquarters and departments in different countries — that’s both a quality and quantity problem.
Website localization options: From replicants to AI
Website localization can be approached from different technical perspectives, and the most basic of all is just replicating a preexistent HTML website like in the 'old' days, around 2015.
That means taking a French website, keeping the same design, structure and code, and just translating the text elements and changing the URL to German. This works when audiences are pretty similar and a business has smaller sales volumes or has considered that content adaptation is not needed, but in most cases personalization can give better results. Also, lots of brands rely on automated translations, which only lead to pure gibberish.
Content Management Systems are more efficient software tools for this purpose. Thanks to artificial intelligence capabilities, they can create localized websites in an automated way, so they save a lot of time while copying content to new channels, especially if the have some plugins incorporated.
These technical decisions depend on how a brand wants to use their localized content. Just replicate it or truly tailor it to a new culture? We will always defend that the latter is the best option — let’s see a real case to show you why a careful and polished cultural localization matters.
The Wrangler case: USA vs. Canada
You could say that people that speak the same language don’t need websites specially adapted for their country. But there are many things that distinguish a businessman in Madrid from another one in Mexico City, and it’s the same thing for people that is just a few miles apart, like an English and a Scottish farmer… and as we’ll see next, a teenager that lives in Canada or the USA.
It’s key to leave no stone unturned when profiling any new market and audience. That’s what the American jeans brand Wrangler did with their strategic website localization in Canada.
How Wrangler localized a pair of jeans: From Texas rodeos to Tokyo streets
Although the brilliance of each branded website variation depends on the design team hired in each country or region, it’s curious to see how the Wrangler story is told very differently in several markets.
It’s no big surprise that the main highlight in the Wrangler trajectory is deeply rooted in the cowboy culture and the West US history. While that’s a valuable trademark in American markets, even in Canada, the relevance of the Western culture is toned down in European and Asian countries.
The differences go even further — in France, the UK or Spain there’s no trace of cowboys left in the Wrangler website. The featured models, and therefore the main audience, has a more urban and cosmopolite vibe, very attached to that trendy Instagram aesthetic. The cowboy inspired clothing line is called ‘Icons’ and it also includes references to rock stars and bohemian people — the Wild West myth is just a secondary collection that represents a vintage style, but not a true lifestyle like you can find both in the USA and Canada Wrangler websites.
The Asian variation is even more extreme: no cowboy clothing line and the Wrangler logo is reduced (or amplified) to an exotic status symbol.
It’s way more interesting to analyze the differences between the USA and Canada Wrangler websites. Of course ‘Western’ is a main category and advertising trademark in both sites and markets, but does Wrangler Canada maintain the ‘cowboy’ brand… or is it something new?
Wrangler USA: Get off your horse
Things change for any brand even in just one market. During the 60s, Wrangler portrayed itself as a clothing line that truly understood why women needed to wear trousers and not only skirts, and in the 70s they took a turn to black people.
But those were just temporary campaigns that haven’t change the core of the Wrangler brand: the authentic American cowboy.
The Canadian localized website demonstrated that things were changing for cowboys too, but even in the USA the old style of jeans ads based on manly and dirty cowboys made room for more hipster, cooler and casual young people. They still wear the classic denim clothes, even cowboy hats or shiny buckles, but they also smile, they are clean, fresh, and not filthy from mucking out the stables.
Cowboys have not disappeared in the Canadian Wrangler website though, but now there are both men and women portrayed, and the boys no longer meet that John Wayne archetype, or as he stated, “COWBOYS, just like the word says”.
Cowboys in capital letters — a living code in the Wrangler USA website that seems directly inspired by the legendary movie star. Speak slowly, talk less, have courage, be strong, defend your dignity. The Canadian cowboy seems to live by a more modern code, but he values the quality and comfort of denim clothing.
Wrangler opened their first Canadian branch in 1993 in Toronto, almost a century after its founder opened his first factory. The markets have kept growing since, following different strategies despite being two close countries. The USA website appeals to the American cowboy while the Canadian one speaks to a metropolitan citizen.
Where and how can we perceive that Canadian adaptation? Let’s see some key features and details.
Firstly, the Wrangler homepage has two buttons: Canada or USA — the user chooses. Wrangler were forced into a decision due to IP issues and the difficulty in serving webpages according to IP address. There are many people in Canada using US ip addresses for their business or even for personal use. This resulted in difficulty tracking information and almost laid waste to the whole project. It was a big mistake for Wrangler when they tried IP geotargeting for their website localization.
Also, a very typical Canadian localization feature is offering the website for both English and French end-users.
We have already talked about Wrangler’s brand story. While the USA version is heavier in its cowboy imaginary, the Canadian version highlights how the product is made of details and based on the love for vintage and high quality things — not a cultural statement or some gender identification.
Looking at the images and videos in both websites it’s very noticeable how the Canadian cowboy is no longer a hard and dusty working cowboy but a family man who walks is Labrador Retriever, plays with his baby girl (who also can dress as a classic cowboy!) and takes romantic strolls at dusk.
Switch to Wrangler USA and you’ll see older men, hanging with their homies, drinking, and watching the rodeo. You can also spot very similar models with opposite attitudes: smiling and relaxed in the Canadian version, severe and solitary in the USA website. Men and women are more often portrayed in separated images and sections, while they tend to share the landscape in the Canadian website.
But the most striking differences can be found in each product page. The USA Wrangler website shows models that wear the typical cowboy, belt, boots and hat, while those accessories are scarcer in the Canadian version, and they are totally gone in European and Asian localized sites, because their audiences would rather perceive those items as part of a costume.
Finally, the topper — the US flag. There is no much use of Canadian national symbols in the Wrangler website (it’s an American brand after all), not maple leaves or white and red colour palettes, but the USA website is of course sprinkled with The Stars and Stripes.
One in every five jeans sold in the US are Wrangler — localized website design needs to raise a flag in the more prominent hills, while taking a different approach in other marketing valleys.
An exhaustive and caring preliminary study of a new market is an obligation for any brand with international expansion plans. It’s no longer just a moral issue — a business can go south quickly if it doesn’t offer tailored online navigation, search and shopping experience.
A little learning is a dangerous thing, and the more a brand knows about its geotargeted audience the better results it will get in marketing campaigns, reputation positioning, online and offline sales.