Culturally (Not) Appropriate Images

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Over 70% of customers are more likely to buy a product that is sold in their local language. With ecommerce, this stat rises to 80%. Understanding culture can offer you a competitive edge in international marketing in terms of sales – still, there’s no end of examples of even the largest ecommerce traders in the world making mistakes. So how can you avoid inappropriate imagery in your international campaigns?

The first step is easy: do the research and not just on keywords. Religion, education, government, and cultural values all play a role in what is and what isn’t appropriate for marketing to different audiences. It’s vastly different across the world – even across nations that speak the same language – so understanding that culture is different from nationality is key. Here are some things to consider when choosing images:

One size does not fit all

It’s not enough to try to fit your square peg of a brand into a round hole, sometimes you’ll need to rethink your entire strategy alongside these images. You’ll also need to take a step back from cultural assumptions and double check everything you do. Things you take for granted may be deeply ingrained in your culture. A company selling spectacles in Thailand learn this to their detriment more than a few years ago – discovering that the cute images of animals wearing glasses they were using did not marry well with the local culture. Instead of being appealing, the glasses were disliked because of cultural associations. Animals in particular mean different things across the globe.

Culturally not appropriate image puppy chewing on glasses

Color selection

Some cultures have significant affinity for certain colors – in China for example the color red is seen as bringer of luck and wealth. There are colors to avoid too. In Spain UPS trucks had to be repainted because brown trucks resemble hearses. Likewise, in Germany the brown uniform is associated with WW2 and a past many do not wish to be reminded of. Research the color preferences of your markets and take note. You definitely don’t want to make the same mistake the Telecom company, Orange, made in Northern Ireland.

International Marketing Checklist

Geographical accuracy

It’s insulting when a brand doesn’t bother to understand your local culture and surrounding nation, so it’s not surprise that this is where two huge blunders have been made in recent years by major companies. If you’re going to post a map, like Coca-Cola did at the end of 2015 of what they thought was Russia, pay extreme attention to detail. Coca-Cola posted a map that excluded Crimea from Russia. To Russians, it was clearly missing a territory. In an attempt to solve the situation Coca-Cola quickly posted a picture with the missing land in it, and other disputed territories. Naturally, this offended Ukrainians. Is there any winning in a situation like this? In complex geopolitical situations, it’s important to keep up to date with what’s going on.

Culturally not appropriate Coca-Cola mistake Russia

Here’s a geographical error you can avoid – posting a stock image from the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya of a giraffe when talking about Ghana, which doesn’t even have giraffes and is 3000 miles west. 

Check yourself

Socially acceptable norms in your culture are not always the same elsewhere. Proctor & Gamble discovered this in Japan when they started selling diapers. Using an image of stork delivering a baby on the packaging probably felt natural to their marketers but in Japan this isn’t part of folklore and it perplexed the parents.

Culturally not appropriate stork baby


Confusing religions and practices is a huge and costly mistake that is easily avoided. Do your research when it comes to the religious values of your target market. Understand what times of the year are important for your audiences (Ramadan? Christmas? Eid al-Adh? St Nicholas Day?) as well as what images and phrases might be offensive. In Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism a symbol that looks to the untrained eye like a Swastika is an ancient symbol of success and prosperity. In Hindu culture, there is also a profound respect for cows that results in an avoidance of eating beef for many – where a US market might react well to an image of a burger glistening under the light, to this market that’s distasteful.

Culturally not appropriate images beef hindu culture

Don’t be lazy

Maybe you’re already using imagery abroad and you know it might be inappropriate. Don’t take shortcuts when searching to replace this imagery. In 2012, global furniture giant IKEA, took a shortcut by photo-shopping out a woman they thought would be offensive for their audiences in Saudi Arabia. In theory, this showed a keen understanding of cultural values but we live in a global society and their home markets noticed the total lack of effort. This wasn’t a Saudi family enjoying IKEA furniture. This was a Swedish family minus the woman.culturally not appropriate images IKEA photoshopping


There’s no shame in asking a third party to produce research for your target market – it won’t just save you time but it can also ensure you don’t make costly mistakes. If you want to do the research yourself here are some things to focus on:

  • how people respond to power
  • how much people care about the well being of others
  • how people view animals
  • cultural beliefs of gender equality
  • religion
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About Author

Amy Hayward
Amy Hayward

Amy Hayward is an Inbound Marketing Specialist with certifications in HubSpot Inbound Marketing, HubSpot Email Marketing, and Google AdWords. Amy has moved on to new opportunities, but her content was so awesome that it will live on forever on our blogs.

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