Are Indian businesses insensitive to foreign cultures?


In a rather distasteful advertisement on air now, Bollywood star Salman Khan enters a Shaolin temple and refuses to wear the robes preferring his Scott Dixy vest. In a few months the entire school is wearing the vests and instead of practicing Kung-Fu they are practicing Salman Khan Moves.

Welcome to the insensitive nature of the Indian businesses.

Equating something as spiritual as Shaolin Kung-fu to something as frivolous as Salman Khan dancing is grossly insensitive to the culture and traditions of China.

Bur he is not the only one. As Indian businesses have gone global, they have shown an increasing in-sensitivity to the local customs and cultures.

A good example is the Pune based Venkateshwara Hatcheries or “Venky’s” who recently acquired a controlling stake in the English premier League (EPL) Club “ Blackburn Rovers”. For those who follow EPL Blackburn Rovers is one of the founders of the Premier League, and is also the only one outside of the Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea to have won the league since it was established in 1994. But Venky’s unmindful of the history of the club and its importance to the local community made some real nasty moves turning important pillars of the club against each other.

Steve Kean the manager was so unpopular with the club that even the local newspapers started demanding his ouster. But Venky’s were unmindful of the fact that for the local community the Club was like a religion and playing Soccer was a daily ritual. In a famous Article the Economic Times the headline ran “Maybe chicken don’t play ball”, drawing correlations between the Venky’s business of hatcheries and the football. The criticism mounted leading the Telegraph to put up an article asking the Venky’s to act.

Chicken Dont play Ball

Finally Venky’s did act but by then the Club has slipped into the relegation zone.

Not to be left behind the Indian IT firms have also mastered the art of being ignorant of local cultures. For example a Indian IT firm having an office in Latin America had difficulty in understanding the Latin American need for a break after lunch for siesta. This led to profound HR issues between the management which was Indian and the employees who were local. Similar issues have since then cropped up in development centers built by Indian forms in Argentina, France and the US.

But is there anyone in the Indian corporate world that has been able to avoid this issue? Well the answer is a familiar name the TATA’s. Not only did the TATA’s successfully acquire firms like Tetley, Jaguar and Land Rover but they managed to retain talent and win the hearts and minds of the local community. TATA’s have overall shown great maturity in dealing with the local cultural issues and have not faced major issues in managing them. Not only are the acquired entities productive but also have turned a profit this year.

So what can Indian firms do to be more successful with cultural issues? Well these are some steps in my opinion that can help

  1. Be aware of local sensitivities on issues and cultures which may seem very trivial to you, Football might be a game in India but it is a religion in some countries.
  2. As far as possible work on building strong ties with the local community and that would help the productivity issues later.
  3. Never take for granted, that local issues will sort themselves out, these are issues will never go away by themselves. As part of the acquisition plan or the market entry plan Indian firms have to work on understanding these challenges.
  4. The late management guru Sumantra Ghoshal used to say that Indian firms are great at cooking sweet (Grow, Acquire, Build) but very poor at cooking sour (Optimizing, Managing, increasing efficiency). International businesses ask for both, so it is time for Indian businesses to learn cooking sour.

But I would like to hear your views, what else can Indian businesses do to be more aware and sensitive to local cultures?

  1. Dr Vikram says

    Hi Altaf

    Yes I agree, this was a very bad ad and hope Sallu has the decency to pull if off the air, if not then that would not be the worst thing he has ever done

  2. Altaf Rahman says

    I saw the ad only two days back and instantly felt it was pathetic.
    Making fun of other cultures / traditions, that too for a two bit ad is pathetic.
    I think the ad is targeting negative backlash to market their products.
    Adventurism in ad making i something and crossing the thin line of decency is another.

  3. arch says

    We are often culturally insensitive to our counterparts from different regions in india. We stereotype them and make fun of them publicly through movies and tv ads. The same thing is now impacting business. It calls for more than just hiring a culture trainer to ensure business runs smoothly. We need to respect what people from other cultures bring as value add to the business. In that sense, opening a business at a foreign location just because it is cheaper does not make sense.

    1. Dr Vikram says

      Totally agree I think it is a spill over of the behavior we have shown to other regions in India. I think the problem is a deeper one and would require more than just cosmetic correction.

  4. JD Viharini says

    Just as foreign companies need to hire cross-cultural experts to help them succeed in India, so Indian companies need to do the same when venturing into foreign markets. Ignoring cultural differences when doing business in another country is a sure recipe for disaster. There are plenty of good ones around and it’s well worth the expense to hire one.

    1. Dr Vikram says

      I totally agree, that is a very important consideration.


    Besides TATAs, the Aditya Birla Group is running 11 companies successfully in Thailand. The cultural differences have been bridged with what I feel an awareness and commitment from Top management and the Local Business Head who runs the show. It is rather difficult to be successful in a foreign land if the local culture is not understood thoroughly. It definitely needs patience which I feel lacks in small Indian Groups who set up offices in foreign countries. The VISION is lacking.

    1. Dr Vikram says

      Brilliant point thank you for sharing, Aditya Birla is also a very good example.

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