International Expansion

Culture matters in e-exports – An interview with Malgorzata Musinska-Kubis, business trainer and cultural diversity expert


This article was reviewed and updated on August 10th, 2023

How important are cultural differences in business? 

There is no doubt that the world today has become a global village. In the streets of New York, Tokyo, Mumbai, or Tel Aviv, we can see the same retail chains, shopping malls, or restaurants. Why, then, don’t all restaurants of a given chain have the same menus? Why do the product ranges of global brands vary across markets?

Despite unification and integration of the world economies, cultures have not blended completely. This continues to have a significant impact on consumer behavior and determine the success of businesses and investments.

Culture is like an iceberg. When developing business strategies, we should not be informed just by the visible parts; we should keep in mind the invisible aspects of culture. This means the values, norms, traditions, ways of building relationships, and the assumptions which directly affect our business partners' decisions.

Cultural differences can be viewed in different dimensions. They require those of us who plan business strategies and actions to expand our knowledge. But they also require us to adopt attitudes of openness, tolerance and respect. We also need to acquire the skills and master the behaviors which will make or break negotiations with partners from other cultural backgrounds. For example, if you travel to hold negotiations in an Asian country, you had better leave your white suit at home. And remember not to buy a set of four golf balls as a gift for the president of a Japanese corporation.*

* White is the color of mourning in Asia. The number 4 signifies death and is avoided in Asian cultures, particularly in Japan and China.

E-exports assume that we search customers mostly through commercial platforms. For the culture clash not to cancel the power of your brand, what needs to be paid attention to? What should be particularly well-prepared?

What matters most are the customs and standards which vary among geographical regions.

For example, a Swedish customer using a sales platform expects simplicity and high transparency in the website design, along with an equally simple and intuitive purchasing process. Immediately after the sale is closed, the customer expects a single explicit confirmation of the purchase. I would never risk showering a Scandinavian customer with several emails after the purchase is made, which is a common practice on Polish sales platforms.

How we create advertising content and design vary depending on which world market we target. Different distribution channels are used – e.g. in India, it is usually the cinema. We tend to use different styles of language (more or less direct), and even the advertising creative strategies will differ; you have to choose between the argumentative, symbolic, or imitative types.

Suppose we have a commercial for a digital camera. In collectivist culture countries like Japan or China, we are more likely to use the slogan "Share your moments of happiness and joy with your nearest and dearest". In the individualist US culture, we are more likely to use something like "Indulge in discovering yourself".

There are numerous examples of such cultural impacts, which only confirms the meaning of culture in business. The number of concerns that need to be taken into consideration while developing an international expansion strategy on a given market is truly vast.

Do we, as Poles, have any habits which may hamper our ability to succeed in business?

First of all, we should be working on our cultural self-awareness. We should try to enhance it and, as a result, boost our cross-cultural competence. This involves not only knowledge about a given country – its traditions, history and norms – but also our own attitude and skills.

Irrespective of which country and culture we come from, we should expand our perspective and adopt an attitude of openness and tolerance when working with clients from other cultures. What is good manners and widely accepted in Poland may be perceived as rude in another culture. It can be a turn-off or even eliminate us as potential business partners.

It is also advisable to check out what image and stereotype of our culture is common in the market we are entering; this will help us understand the occasional negative treatment we may experience from people from that area. We can debunk the stereotype by setting our own good example.

In terms of cultural differences, what should we do to succeed in exports?

Cultural awareness is undoubtedly a passport to the minds of foreign consumers because it is the cultural factors that determine international business decisions. Nevertheless, the awareness itself should be augmented with appropriate business strategies created with cross-cultural competence specialists.

In practical terms, we should use advisory and consulting services for creating website visualizations and conducting negotiations. We may also go the extra mile and hire some people from the culture we want to target; this approach will be particularly useful for markets which are very different from our culture, particularly in products and customer service.

Sound market research is always a source of competitive advantage. As an example, it can provide such essential business information as:

  • Russians are used to budget constraints, but they appreciate quality and positive buying experience. 
  • Residents of Moscow and Saint Petersburg spend twice as much time shopping online as people in other regions. 
  • Social media in Russia is the fastest channel to build brands and reach customers.

Commercial success should always stem from sensitivity to cultural differences. Cross-cultural competencies can protect us not only from marketing and management errors, but they can also build added value and competitive advantage. They provide a synergy effect.

How to choose a B2B e-commerce platform?

9 questions to ask before you decide