4 Ways to Avoid Cultural Bias in Marketing

Illustration of people discussing while looking at a screen

If you’re a marketer or business owner, you might be familiar with the concept of cultural bias–if you’re not, you should be!

cultural bias
Part of launching a great marketing strategy is knowing your customers and buyer personas inside and out, and you won’t be able to do that if you don’t account for cultural bias.

What is cultural bias?

Cultural bias happens when people judge phenomena by the standards they’ve learned from their own culture.

From the moment we’re born, we’re taught to interpret the world in a certain way. One person might look at a baby and think, Oh my goodness, what a darling little angel! The person right across from them might think, DEVIL SPAWN! GET THAT THING AWAY FROM ME.

Cultural bias is like that, but worse–because it’s on a much larger scale, and it involves big groups of people.

We all know that different cultures see the world through different lenses. It’s why business (and self-help) books always talk about how you should learn about the countries that you plan to visit.

You don’t want to accidentally make a hand gesture that says, “Hey, screw you!” when all you meant was “A-okay!”.

Here’s one example of cultural bias:

Two men are walking down the street. They’re holding hands and leaning in close, smiling about a joke they just made. An American passes by and assumes that they’re in a romantic relationship. And someone from a more conservative country, however, walks past and thinks to himself, “Wow, what a great friendship.”

One situation, two interpretations. Why do the American and the non-America perceive the event differently?

Because they were raised differently.

Assumptions made from cultural bias come in two forms.

  1. General assumptions about people who aren’t from your own background.
  2. Assumptions about a particular cultural group.

Both forms of cultural bias can affect the quality of communication between people and groups.

Is it a big deal?


The effects of cultural bias range from mild + harmless to super-duper-mega-million-dollar-catastrophic.

Assumptions built from cultural bias aren’t objective–at all–and they can be especially dangerous if you’re working with culturally diverse groups.

Just a few of the worst things that cultural bias can lead to:

Stigma: Negative labelling of a group based on certain attributes.

Stereotyping: Making assumptions about a person based on generalizations about their culture. Stereotypes are often used to describe a particular cultural group, and prevent people from really building those connections.

Discrimination: Showing prejudice against a certain group of people because of oversimplified assumptions. Discrimination involves unfair labelling and treatment of other people, and is built upon a foundation of stigma and stereotyping.

I’m gonna break the bad news first, because it’ll make the good news better: cultural bias can screw everything up.

Don’t believe me? Check out this quick list I compiled of some of the negative effects of cultural bias in marketing and business.

  • Inadequate assessment interviews.

    • Front of the funnel: aka, building the interview.

Failing to gain insight on how your target audience communicates can trip you into building an interview/questionnaire that’s not detailed enough.

Maybe you incorrectly assumed that your audience could understand a question, or overestimated their ability to express their feelings. 

    • End of the funnel: aka, analysis.

Maybe it’s not the information that’s lacking.

Maybe it’s your ability to interpret it (sorry for making you the bad guy).

You might be confused about your audience’s reaction to a specific piece or action, because in your own culture, it counts as a negative response.

In your audience’s culture, however–it might be totally normal (or even positive!).

  • Miscommunication with your target audience.

Imagine this: you’ve spent ages building a super-intense marketing campaign that you’re sure will blow the socks off your audience. It’s funny, it’s creative, it’s engaging, it’s warm–basically, it’s PERFECT.

Only, it’s not.

You launch and for some reason, the numbers don’t match with your projections. People are complaining about it on social media.

You get in the news–not for your stunning business results, but for your callous, reckless, and tone-deaf campaign. Ouuuch.

  • Semi-permanent damage to your reputation.

If you’re unlucky, you’ll go down in marketing canon as an example of what not to do. Like that Pepsi ad (you know the one I’m talking about).

How did Pepsi go awry?

They didn’t do enough research.

Sure, they caught on to the fact that young Americans really, REALLY care about intersectionality and race. BUT then they tried to commodify the issue by presenting Pepsi as the cure to racial tension in the good ol’ US of A. (Talk about delusions of grandeur..).

If they had done more research into the current political and social culture of the audience they were targeting, they might’ve found that young Americans:

That bottle of Pepsi quickly turned into a meme.

Having a problem with your boss? Pepsi.

Trying to end a war? Pepsi.

Breaking down centuries-old racial tension and prejudice? Yup, Pepsi.

It’s astonishing–and frightening–how much negative press a 3-minute ad generated. And if you don’t do the research, you might be risking that same level of damage to your own reputation.


But now, the good news: It doesn’t have to be this way.

There are tons of things you can do to avoid cultural bias in marketing, and it all comes down to research. So…


Seriously, just do it.

Like Nike, who managed to “cleverly align its brand with the very different notions of what constitutes an ‘ideal man’ in the US, China, India, and the UK.”

Nike and their agency, Wieden+Kennedy, understood that the concept of the “ideal man” looked different in each country they were targeting.

So they did the research, creating characters in their ads that best exemplified traits that their target consumers valued. But don’t listen to me. Take it from them:

“The rugged history of America encouraged Americans to view the ideal man as one imbued with ‘righteous purpose’. The contrast with China could not be starker–whereas the American ideal man is ‘righteous’, his Chinese counterpart is ‘circumspect’”.

By doing their homework, they successfully aligned their company with the ideals of their target market. Sure, it takes a lot of time and effort. But it’s worth it. And the good thing is that there are plenty of tools that you can use to make this part of your job easier.

For example, you can use Toggl’s time tracking to optimize the time you spend on market research. You can use Textform to create customer questionnaires and response forms.

Don’t cheap out on the interviews, questionnaires, and analysis. The returns are so worth it: a happy target audience that feels connected to your brand? Customers who come back? Heck yes.

(Plus, it’s just too scary not to put in the work).

Here are a bunch of different ways you can refine your research process and reduce cultural bias in marketing.

1. Talk to local experts.

This is important even if you’re based in a single country, because the culture of a city like New York is absolutely, totally, completely different from that of Fort Worth.

And even cities can be broken down further, into smaller communities and districts and townships and etc.

Build a team of local experts who you can get advice from. The ideal expert is objective and has a pulse on the cultural nuances of the area. If you can’t find an objective expert, consult the numbers and look at recent market research.

This is prudent at every stage of business.

2. Pay attention to language.

Translation is super important.

Just look at the Bible–no one can seem to agree on how to best convey its meaning. And even though there are hundreds of Bible translations, most of them still don’t make sense.

Why the heck are there rules about wearing clothes made from two types of fabrics? (Why the heck can’t I mix denim and cloth, Moses?) And why are there rules about eating shellfish?

Within the context of today’s culture, many of these rules and statements make no sense. Don’t let your company’s message fall into the same trap of cultural (and temporal) divide.

Translate for meaning and for culture.

How do you say what you want to say?

Words can be an issue even if you’re just using one language.

Sarah the American tells her new British coworker and next door neighbor Peter that she’s worried about waking up on time for the meeting tomorrow. He cheerfully replies, “Oh, don’t worry! I’ll knock you up tomorrow at six.”

Since knocking someone up = getting them pregnant in American English, Sarah would probably start FREAKING THE HECK OUT.

She might start avoiding Peter entirely, or–in a worst case scenario–file a report with HR about his inappropriate behavior.

Peter, on the other hand, might be confused about why Sarah seems so unenthusiastic about his attempt to be helpful. 

If Sarah tells the story to her other (American) coworkers, Peter’s reputation could be destroyed. And he might have to return to Britain in disgrace, or quit and find employment at another company. A catastrophe, simply because he wanted to be a nice coworker and wake his new friend up on time.

All this because of a single sentence? It might seem crazy, but it’s possible.

And the chances of miscommunication amplify when you’re working in multiple languages.

Each language has its own idioms and figurative terms, so it’s important to be aware of them when creating translations and localized applications.

Readability > Cleverness.

If a client or member of your target audience has to think to understand your content, then you’ve failed to communicate properly. Keep the reading level of your marketing material as low as possible.

Confusing customers is almost always bad (the only exception is when they’re confounded by how amazing y’all are compared to the competition).

When you’re building a test or customer feedback form, keep the questions simple and concise. If a customer has to struggle to answer a question, their feedback won’t be optimal. Strive for:

  • Clear, plain language.
  • Active tense, not passive tense.
  • 4-6th grade reading level.
  • Simple sentences.
  • No errors in grammar + spelling.

It’s tempting to make jokes or puns in marketing, and that’s AWESOME. But if you’re too focused on the humor, you risk losing out on clarity.

Keep it simple.

Whether your target audience is stodgy surgeons or fresh college grads, the best marketing material is the kind that’s easily understood.

Writing unnecessarily convoluted content might seem like a remarkably efficient method for impressing your intended audience, but the undeniable truth of the matter is that it will simply alienate them, reducing the overall retention level and causing them to ignore the content entirely.

(See what I did there?)

Pay attention to methodology.

Try worded scales instead of open-ended questions. Number-only scales “are more open to interpretation than worded scales”, so you risk confusing your participants. When asking clients to rate a phenomenon, event, or situation, define the scale for them.

For example, instead of a 1-10 scale, use a scale of “extremely dissatisfied; fairly dissatisfied; slightly dissatisfied; slightly satisfied; fairly satisfied; extremely satisfied”.

Ask general questions before specific questions.

Establish weighting criteria that you can apply to future surveys.

For example: you could base criteria on revenue per country, number of customers, or a determination of each location’s long-term potential to your business. Use the Porter’s Five Forces Model to assess the market and determine threats from the competition.

Pretest surveys before launching them to locate and iron out flaws.

3. Choose images carefully.

They say that pictures are worth a thousand words, but in the world of marketing, they’re worth WAY more than that.

If you’re creating tests or customer feedback forms, complement your questions with drawings so that your participants can have more context.

When you’re designing marketing content, the images you choose should align with your overall message. Like that Nike campaign I mentioned earlier.

After doing the research about what the ideal man looked like, Nike did more research about cultural icons who embodied those traits.

In the UK, for example, Nike featured Wayne Rooney, one of the world’s most famous footballers. Rooney was portrayed as a lighthearted man with a sense of humor–perfect for a country whose ideal man is “decent” and “has a sense of irony and wit”.

4. Avoid basing business decisions on personal judgments.

Let the voice of your target audience shine through, and avoid making personal judgments.

When you’re selling to someone, you want to be on their side–subjectivity gets in the way of that.

Making business decisions based on stereotypes can be fatal, especially when the numbers tell a different story.

Researchers haven’t really found a way to get rid of cultural bias entirely (though it’d be awesome–imagine being able to understand anyone from anywhere in the world!).

For now, though, we can strive for greater awareness about these differences. By learning more about what makes us “us”, we can communicate properly with the people we want to work with and build bridges instead of walls.

March 14, 2018