When it comes to symbols, the smile reigns supreme. Its one connotation — happiness — is undisputed the world over. Yet despite the smile’s universal appeal, research suggests that culture affects our perceptions of it in unexpected ways.
A report published in January in the journal Emotion examined different interpretations of smiles in mainland China, Taiwan and the US. Jeanne Tsai of Stanford University and contributors from seven other countries and territories examined the degree to which leaders in politics, business and academia expose their teeth whilst smiling in photos. They discovered that leaders in greater China show modest, closed smiles. Those in America, on the other hand, show big, gummy smiles.
These findings reveal more than simply which leaders practice better oral hygiene. They suggest that cultures have a significant impact on the way symbols look and how they are interpreted. In branding, these symbols often form the bedrock of a company’s identity, such as carmaker Volvo, which has used a circle with an arrow pointing upward and to the right—denoting the element iron—as its logo since 1927. Yet when brands seek to establish a presence overseas, they may overlook the different ways foreign cultures assimilate these subtle cues. This could complicate their message and even, in extreme cases, set them up for failure.
Take the smile, for example. The symbolic importance of the smile is greater than one might expect. Research has shown that Caucasian American preschoolers prefer excited smiles and perceived excited smiles as happier than Taiwanese Chinese preschoolers. Children’s storybooks, advertisements and Facebook photos show similar disparities in type of smile between greater China and the US, with Asian groups displaying a less-excited smile. Caucasian European subjects have been shown to display emotions via different facial cues than Chinese.
For global marketers, who should be sensitive to cross-cultural differences—particularly in consumer-facing industries—easily-overlooked factors such as the type of smile displayed in an advertisement can make a significant difference in the audience’s receptivity to the message being conveyed. East Asian cultural groups, for example, have been shown to prefer advertisements depicting both positive and negative emotions to a higher degree than Caucasian Americans, who gravitate toward positive emotions only. This kind of dichotomy extends to national identities within the Western world: American sympathy cards contain more positive words than those in Germany, where people are thought to shun negative emotional states less than their Yankee counterparts.
Such studies should not necessarily be taken as firm branding guidelines, but rather reminders that cross-cultural marketing involves far more than merely translating slogans. Nicole McMillan, who heads marketing in Asia Pacific for Wrigley, the American chewing-gum maker, believes that in adapting Wrigley’s brand assets for overseas markets—a process known as transcreation—elements like symbols are crucial. “It’s important to understand what are the locally entrenched cultural cues that will help your story be more believable,” McMillan maintains.
In addition to smiles, other factors such as colour play on cultural differences in evoking consumer emotions and reactions. Colour is often one of the most fundamental aspects of a brand’s identity; similarly, it can have deep cultural connotations that are worth keeping in mind when venturing abroad. Even the strongest product may not be able to overcome negative colour associations.
White, for example, implies death and mourning across various Asian countries. Avoiding it or other colours deemed inauspicious may seem superstitious, but their use and misuse can have consequences: Pepsi in South-east Asia lost its dominant market share to Coca-Cola when it adopted a light-blue scheme for its vending machines, as the latter pigment means death in the region. United Airlines hastily withdrew the white carnations it was handing out as a welcome gift on inaugural flights to Hong Kong, replacing them with red flowers instead, as white is considered an inauspicious colour in Chinese culture. Pepsodent slipped up in marketing its whitening toothpaste to South-east Asian consumers who prefer darker, betel nut-stained teeth.
None of this is meant to discount individual variation within cultures, which is significant. Ascribing a definite set of likes, tastes and aspirations to every Asian or every American is a fool’s errand. But one cannot argue that culture plays no role at all. Indeed, many companies already tailor their products to suit different regional tastes—literally in the case of food firms like McDonald’s and Starbucks. And just as products change to suit geography, so too is there a place for the idea of “cultural values”—that intrinsic sense of right and wrong, of good and bad, of true and false—to at least serve as a starting point in developing a cross-cultural communications strategy. Brands must thread a delicate needle in expressing sexually-charged situations in advertisements in still-traditional Asian societies, for example.
With globalisation far more deeply entrenched now than it was then, brands have become more cautious about overstepping these kinds of boundaries than they might have been in the past. The shift to digital avenues of delivery means that marketers can respond to such slip-ups more quickly. Leveraging digital analytics also allows for deeper consumer insights. When combined with on-the-ground expertise—via local cultural consultants, for example—these observations can help brands create a richer and more nuanced profile of a region than was possible in the analogue era.
All this lets those engaged in cross-cultural communication move beyond stereotypes when formulating strategies for entering foreign markets and reaching foreign eyes and ears. Maintaining the foundation of a global campaign but adapting it to suit the needs of an overseas market can help address the fundamental problem that what works in one region can easily fall flat in another.
As Francis O. Boachie-Mensah and Rosemond Boohene of the University of Cape Coast, Ghana wrote in the journal International Business and Management,
“The marketer who uses a trademark depicting an old craftsman to symbolize careful workmanship may instead be communicating an image of outmoded methods and lack of style.”
 And especially if that craftsman happens to be smiling, you may want to count his teeth.
Written by The Economist Intelligence Unit
sponsored by Williams Lea Tag
 Tsai, Jeanne L., Jen Ying Zhen Ang, Elizabeth Blevins, Julia Goernandt, Helene H. Fung, Da Jiang, Julian Elliott, Anna Kölzer, Yukiko Uchida, Yi-Chen Lee, Yicheng Lin, Xiulan Zhang, Yolande Govindama and Lise Haddouk. “Leaders’ Smiles Reflect Cultural Differences in Ideal Affect.” Emotion 16.2 (2016): 183-95.
 Tsai, Jeanne L. “Ideal Affect: Cultural Causes and Behavioral Consequences.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 2.3 (2007): 242-59.
 Tsai, Jeanne L., Louise Chim and Tamara Sims. “Consumer Behavior, Culture, and Emotion.” In Handbook of Culture and Consumer Behavior. Eds. Sharon Ng and Angela Y. Lee. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press (2015): 68-98.
 Jack, Rachael E., Oliver G. B. Garrod, Hui Yu, Roberto Caldara and Philippe G. Schyns. “Facial expressions of emotion are not culturally universal.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109.19 (2012): 7241-7244.
 Tsai 2015.
 Koopmann-Holm, Birgit and Jeanne L. Tsai. “Focusing on the Negative: Cultural Differences in Expressions of Sympathy.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 107.6 (2014): 1092-1115.
 Aslam, Mubeen M. “Are You Selling the Right Colour? A Cross-cultural Review of Colour as a Marketing Cue.” Journal of Marketing Communications 12.1 (2006): 15-30.
 Pride, William M., and O. C. Ferrell. Foundations of Marketing. 5th ed. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning, 2012. Ibid.
 Boachie-Mensah, Francis O. and Rosemond Boohene. “A Review of Cross-Cultural Variations in Consumer Behaviour and Marketing Strategy.” International Business and Management 5.2 (2012): 122-129.