The next time you find yourself in a foreign country about to have the first meeting with a new business partner, make sure you take time to grab a local newspaper or have a coffee in a local cafe. It could help you land the deal.

This is the advice guest speaker Vikas Shah gave at the ALTO Berlin event in October 2016. Creating empathetic connections with your business partners is a powerful tool, he told delegates. Picking up a newspaper or just chatting with the locals to find out the hot topics of the day can help you engage more authentically with your foreign business partners.

“Form a strong bond around empathy before trying to get down to business,” he advised schools and agents. “Life is about power relationships and the essence of cultural communication is power. Power comes from empathy.”

Even though international educators work in multicultural environments daily, Shah reminded delegates that most people approach new experiences through a lens of ethnocentrism – a tendency to judge the world based on one’s own cultural understandings.

He advised delegates to be aware of their own ethnocentrism and be curious instead of aggressive when they’re faced with cultural differences.

“The first cultural bond is friendship and curiosity,” he explained.

Cross-cultural awareness in marketing

That cultural connection is also crucial in international marketing even if companies are aiming to reach thousands of people. Marketing should establish immediate, cultural bonds with target audiences, he said.

However, too often multinational campaigns get it all wrong.

Shah used the example of baby food company Gerber which faced pitfalls in African markets where images on food labels matter more than wording or an ingredients list. Shoppers were turned off by glass jars displaying the iconic Gerber baby, concerned they might contain more than just pureed vegetables.

The company misunderstood how many African shoppers think, said Shah. “Cognitive elements are important,” he said. “Find what you can tap into to form that instant bond.”

Localise campaign language as much as possible he advised, but warned there is a “danger of patronising a culture when you try to localise too much.”

To ensure marketing campaigns hit the target, education marketers should use translators – but not to translate texts into the local language.

“You can find a cultural baseline by asking translators, ideally native speakers or someone who has significant in-country experience, cultural questions like, ‘What are the do’s and don’t’s?’,” he said. “Translators are your secret weapon.”

More practical advice extolled by Shah included creating separate landing pages that respond to the cultural nuances of different geographies or different interests of students. “What job are you fulfilling in the person’s life?,” he asked delegates, reminding them that “in the era of digital marketing we can aim different solutions to different jobs.”

The event gave both educators and agents new insights on cross-cultural branding and communication. Many walked away with new approaches that they could implement in their own organisations.

“We all know that it’s important to know the different cultures and the different ways of conducting business in different countries, but it was good to realise we have to do more homework before touring different countries,” said Juan Manuel Elizalde, director of Kells College and Idiomas en el Extranjero.

“As an agent it’s different than for a school but you still need to know your partner culturally when you’re conducting business.”

From the school side, Stephen Shortt, director of Alpha College in Dublin, found Shah’s presentation interesting and practical. “I have a huge interest in international communication and cross-cultural communication, but also one of the things he touched on was internal corporate culture which I think is fundamental,” he said.

“The way that he was able to take a lot of the ideas, take a lot of the concepts and distill them down into something that was bite-sized, easy to manage, and easy to understand was very good.”