Large consumer markets continue to open up and expand abroad, attracting the growing attention and investment of foreign firms. As domestic brands expand into non-native markets, business thought and strategy has taken on an increasingly globalized focus. International expansion poses new challenges to modern marketers who must make products universally approachable and acceptable within differing cultural contexts. Marketing relativism -- or marketing strategy sensitive to the cultural complexities of foreign consumers -- focuses on the linguistic, moral, cultural, legal and political differences that arise in various international contexts.

Words and Language

The common native turn-of-phrase or idiom often lacks an equally meaningful translation into other languages. In the late 1980s, General Electric Company started the international telecommunications subsidiary GEC-Plessey Telecommunications (GPT); the French translation of GPT, however, pronounced “J’ai pété”, translated into “I’ve farted," much to the company's chagrin. In the late 1990s, Panasonic ads featuring the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker as the “Internet guide” headlined the slogan “Touch Woody - The Internet Pecker.” An otherwise inoffensive tagline in Japan had quite the different meaning in American slang. International marketers must recognize relative linguistic contexts in order to safeguard against potentially costly business blunders.

Sex and Decency

The notion that “sex sells” isn’t a universal one. While sexualized advertising is commonplace in many international markets, erotic imagery is strictly forbidden in others. Religion, in particular, has significant bearing on the issue. Muslim countries generally frown on erotic reference, direct or otherwise. Similar standards operate in conservative Christian nations, such as Ireland and the Philippines. But just as standards vary among nations, they also vary within them.


Religion informs not only sexual appropriateness, but ideas about community, individualism, morality, diet and family, among many others. In 2007, the year of the pig, China banned all advertising featuring images of pigs out of respect for the Muslim dietary prohibition of pork. In 2005, a French court upheld the ban of clothing advertisements satirizing Leonardo da Vinci’s, Christ’s Last Supper. Thus, observing principles of marketing relativism, an international marketer must remain sensitive to the fact that what is considered religiously mundane by some may be deemed wildly offensive by others.

Law and Politics

In a globalized marketplace, a nation’s regulatory infrastructure and political climate are additional cultural complexities at the forefront of marketing decision-making. Marketing relativism underscores the concepts of morality and legality as cultural variables; what’s considered perfectly allowable marketing messaging in one country may be illegal in another. The same considerations must applied to a nation’s respective political climate. Aspirational ideals such as corporate or environmental responsibility may not resonate with consumers in nations burdened by civil unrest the same way they would be in politically stable nations.