By David Ryan Polgar, Contributor
There are countless stories of companies that release content and find themselves in a cultural quagmire. Earlier this year, for example, ABC had to apologize for a controversial episode of Quantico that many felt failed to appreciate the geopolitical undercurrent between India and Pakistan.
As companies develop content and distribute it around the globe, it behooves their leaders to proactively understand the nuances of their audience, including any regional sensitivities.
Enter the concept of culturalization, where companies appreciate the geopolitical and cultural climates of the local markets where they distribute content. Different from localization, which focuses on how to tailor content to a local audience through translation and local news, culturalization involves going the extra mile to deliver culturally appropriate and meaningful content to local consumers.
For Kate Edwards, founder and principal consultant at Geogrify, a Seattle-based consultancy that works with companies to develop more culturally-aware content, culturalization also means understanding the social science, informational technology, and creative media arts that impact local economies.
Serving as the executive director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) from 2012 to 2017, and working as a geopolitical strategist for major tech companies, she is well-qualified in helping companies become more successful through the stories they tell.
Perspectives spoke with Kate Edwards to uncover the ways companies can create better content in our politically-charged and digitally-empowered age.
What is culturalization?
Kate Edwards: Culturalization is how you adapt content for other cultures and other geographies beyond just normal localization. Culturalization looks beyond the language component at every other aspect of the content that can be potentially sensitive to a particular market.
It could be, like in video games, the representation of characters, the representation of history, religion, the use of symbols, gestures, body language, color usage—all of these other factors that go beyond the language adaptation.
My job with culturalization is basically as a geographer. I bring a cross-cultural background and focus on geopolitics. I do a comparative exercise between what the company wants to achieve with their content and what’s going to work in that particular market, and then help them reconcile that.
How is the approach to culturalization evolving?
KE: Typically, if [businesses] were confronted with something that might be offensive, they would often pass it to their legal team, where the legal team would say, “We don’t see a legal implication here, but we’re not cultural experts. We don’t know exactly what to do.” A typical legal response would be to reduce risk exposure by removing the content altogether.
But you don’t want to disrupt the creative vision for the product; you want to support it. It’s best to see if there’s a way to adapt the creative vision as intended for this new market, but [also] get around the issue that might be a potential problem.
A lot of companies, treat [product and content development] as a reactive issue. It’s something they have a knee-jerk reaction to rather than thinking about it during creation—that’s the big difference. Culturalization is something that is done early on in product conception.
What would you say are the industries this is most attractive to?
KE: I think for the most part it’s industries that contain a lot of creative content. [But] I’ve been able to apply this kind of knowledge to a lot of different contexts. Even just a simple product that has a dropdown list of countries can be very sensitive because, for example, if you have the entity labeled as Taiwan in a ‘Country List,’ you’ve instantly made a political statement to China.
The great majority of my work has been focused on IT and games, but I’ve seen [this] in the creative space, whether it’s film, literature, or television. [Content] uses a lot of additional layers of culture—the representation of people and the representation of belief and political systems that typically most products don’t get into at all.
Content industries are really where we see this most, especially because it’s in digital form, spreading around the world basically in an instant fashion. You instantly have this global multicultural audience, and you also have the potential for multicultural backlash if you get it wrong.
Should companies operate with the assumption that anyone can see their content?
KE: Yes, you need to assume that. Your content in digital form will be anywhere and you really have no control over who sees it or not.
I know this from direct experience, having been involved in so many different products where the team, even with digital content, said, “Well, we only really intended for this market to see it, that’s why we put in certain things that were culturally specific to [one place].” But then for a nearby market, they were culturally exclusionary. Those people still saw it because it’s digital content and there’s not a lot you can do to control that.
What are the issues that you see come up frequently when you’re working with clients?
KE: There are a lot of geopolitical dynamics [companies] have to be mindful of. I’ve seen companies make the mistake of sending Chinese content into Korea, which is extremely offensive. There are also deep, contemporary issues between Israel and the Arab world.
There are a lot of things companies just assume it’s okay to do, like when they use maps in their products. Maps can be extremely sensitive. In fact, in India, the government has laws that require you to show the map a certain way if you’re going to sell a product in the country.
So, a lot of companies have no idea that is the case, so they’re shocked [when] their product gets banned. They may not even really realize why and it might be just because of the map they threw into their content.
How do you tie culturalization in with ROI?
KE: That’s a really important question because it’s ultimately what companies want: to increase their revenue. That’s basically the job that I see culturalization is at its fundamental core: It’s about respecting the customers that are out there—not only the ones you already have, but the ones that you would like to have.
It comes down to thinking, “What can I do to establish a content-creation policy and product-creation process that will be mindful of all of those other people out there that I don’t know about, but might be potential customers for me?”
During content or product development, it’s asking the right questions: What is this thing we’re making? Who is our audience going to be? What are they going to be using this for?
All of those baseline assumptions are also cultural assumptions, so it’s really important to think about this stuff at that stage.
It’s important to at least do the thought exercises that will reflect a more inclusive market. It’s a better reflection of the culture in which the product is going to be released, and will that eventually have a better appeal. In the longterm, companies that do this have seen that there’s a certain level of customer trust that is built because the consumers start realizing the company really cares.
The preceding interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.