"A single cultural or political error in your query letter, article, or images can get you a quick 'no thanks' from an editor. . ."

Knowing the International Marketplace

By Michael Sedge

The first step towards successful international sales is to know the markets. You’ve heard that, I am certain, over and over again. When I say “know” the markets, however, I am referring not only to the age, sex, and economic state of the readers. You must, in the global marketplace, also know and understand their habits, their religion, their environment, the television programs they watch, the languages they speak, and many more aspects of daily life that, in the United States and Canada, a freelancer need give little concern.

International marketing calls for knowledge of the various social, political and cultural habits of the country in which you hope to sell. Lack of such insight can sometimes be the difference between a check in the mail or a rejection slip. A single cultural or political error in your query letter, article, or images can get you a quick “no thanks” from an editor, as well as plant doubt in his or her mind that may influence your credibility for future sales.

People living outside North America, in most cases, do not think like Americans and Canadians and vice versa. There are hundreds of stories to exemplify this. One of the best, however, is Chevrolet’s efforts to sell the Nova in Spain. As the marketing department prepared to launch the car, someone said, “Hey, doesn't anyone here speak Spanish? The words ‘no va’ means ‘it doesn't go.’ Who in their right mind would buy a car that doesn't go?” On a similar vein, “Body By Fisher” translates as “Corpse by Fisher” in Japanese.

But language differences are only one aspect you, as an international freelancer, must keep in mind as your work travels aboard. More important are the cultural barriers. Corn on the cob, for instance, is an hors d’oeuvre in England. Vicks VapoRub is used in many tropical areas primarily as a mosquito repellent. It is a very good idea, in fact, to avoid using any brand names or products in your articles and images if at all possible.

Colors too have different meanings in different countries. In Brazil purple is a death color, while in Hong Kong white is for funerals. In Mexico death is associated with yellow flowers and in France the same flora suggests infidelity. White lilies, while looking beautiful, are never given in England, unless you desire to give a death wish. Red is popular in all Chinese-speaking areas and in Italy. Red roses in the latter country could mean a special emotion if given to one of the opposite sex.

In the freelance guidelines for Muhibah, the in-flight magazine for Royal Brunei Airlines, editor Fong Peng Khuan, says, “Please be aware that as Brunei is an Islamic country, we cannot feature, mention, nor make reference to alcohol, religion (other than Islam), dogs, pigs, political commentary, human body parts or women in revealing clothing.”

There is no doubt that a writer or photographer submitting material that crosses these guidelines would seriously damage his or her chances of working with Khuan.

Religion is a major influence on the value systems and the behavioral patterns of many nations. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, one would never think of giving a gift to another man’s wife, or offering anything alcoholic. Such things are directly regulated by religious beliefs.

Other influences that you should be aware of are those brought about by educational and social environments. A few years back a friend in New York wrote an article for a European publication informing readers that they could purchase all the materials mentioned at their local K-Mart or Wal-Mart stores.

The editor rejected the story stating that “there are no K-Marts or Wal-Marts in France.” In many parts of the world, in fact, one-stop shopping is unknown. In much of western Europe individuals doing their weekly or daily shopping might go to five or six different stores: one for meats, one for bread, one for cheeses, one for cleaning items, etc. While doing so, they mingle with friends and neighbors and have an opportunity to catch up on local gossip.

Had the writer done her market research, she would have known better than to include the popular US chain-stores and may have made not only the first sale, but developed a long-term working relationship with the editor.

As you can see, knowing the habits and cultures of various foreign countries takes some effort. Being aware of the environment in which editors and art directors work and live, however, can make a difference in your international success. The best way to begin is to select a few prime countries for the work you hope to sell and study the lifestyles of those nations.

I was fortunate early on in my foreign marketing in that someone introduced me to the US Government Printing Office’s series of Background Notes. Updated by the State Department, these short, informative documents provide a quick education on a given country, its people, history, economy, and much more.

Each Background Note costs $5 and can be ordered from the Superintendent of Documents, US Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402. You can also call Customer Relations at 1-800-274-4477 or 202-783-3238. Internet users can request copies by e-mail to: order@bernan.com or through the following web page: . In this latter case, you will be required to search the library for the document number. The easiest way to do this is to use the name of the country you are interested in. Once you find the Background Note you want, simply click on the order box.

A less expensive way to get a general background of a country is the Almanac and Book of Facts, found in most libraries. These contain complete listings of every country in the world with demographics, currency exchange rates, histories, political issues, and more. The key is to find the most current edition possible of these publications.

The foreign marketplace is huge, exciting and often overwhelming. It’s like being in a maze of unique and unfamiliar peoples and languages. Though you may not understand everyone and everything you encounter, try to understand the cultures from which they've come. You will find it makes a world of difference in your international freelance success.

Michael Sedge is author of the newly-released book, The Writer’s and Photographer’s Guide to Global Markets, and writes extensively for Writer's Digest.

Copyright 1998 Michael Sedge