Why Your Company Needs a Cultural Consultant*

Last week, DC Comics released Superman/Wonder Woman Annual #2 that included this page.  Did you notice anything wrong?

Linguists, world travelers, and geography buffs would immediately tell you there is no such language as “Pakistanian” (in Pakistan or the wider world).

The pitfalls of making assumptions: What does this goof tell us about the publishers at DC Comics?

1. They also think that the language of Canada is “Canadian,” folks in the USA speak “American,” and everyone in Mexico speaks “Mexican”?  (Their major tongues are English/French, English, and Spanish, respectively.)

2. That they have no interest in selling their product in global markets?

3. That their main product is dramatic animation and unrelated to language and culture?

Unfortunately, too many US-based companies don’t take the time to think about—or research—their products in the global marketplace.  They don’t look beyond their own limited cultural experience.  “If it works for me, it should work for everyone.”

The facts: The official indigenous language of Pakistan is Urdu; other major languages are Punjabi, Pashto, and Sindhi, according to Ethnologue.com

The opportunity: Given that English is also an official language of Pakistan, DC Comics has a chance to reach millions of young readers eager to consume vividly told stories in the global medium of English. 

The result: Unfortunately, DC’s cultural ineptitude is more likely to enhance readership for rival Marvel Comics, which has astutely created an actual superhero for this ethnic market (see image below).

Small-scale flub vs. Large-scale debacle: While DC’s miscue made the company look bad, it can be overcome.  Home Depot, on the other hand, lost $160 million when it misjudged the do-it-yourself culture of Chinese consumers.  After six years of losses, the American DIY chain closed all of its stores in China, discovering too late that the people there preferred to have someone “do it for me” instead.  What is the inverse sound of ka-ching?

As you look at your business model, where are you making assumptions that have no basis in cultural fact in foreign markets?  If you invest in an ounce of prevention, a cultural consultant could save you from that expensive pound of cure.

*Or at least have an intern who can check stuff on Wikipedia.

    Kamala Khan, Pakistani-American teenage superhero from New Jersey, is also Muslim.

  Kamala Khan, Pakistani-American teenage superhero from New Jersey, is also Muslim.

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.