Harnessing cultural diversity in business communication


Amber Sambo | Consultant | Public Relations & Communications | Decusatio Investor Communications | mail me |

In a country as diverse as South Africa, with its rich tapestry of languages and cultures, the importance of speaking to audiences in their own language cannot be overstated.

Cultural diversity is not just a buzzword; it’s a driving force for economic growth, social cohesion, and sustainable development. Three-quarters of the world’s major conflicts have a cultural dimension, highlighting the urgent need to bridge the gap between cultures for peace, stability, and development.

Promoting cultural diversity

In 2001, UNESCO adopted the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, recognising the importance of fostering dialogue and understanding among different cultures. Businesses play a crucial role in promoting cultural diversity through effective communication strategies. Yet, many still underestimate the power of speaking to their audiences in their own language.

Consider the impact of vernacular communication in South Africa – uKhozi FM, a predominately Zulu radio station, boasts a listenership of over 7.6 million people per week, making it one of the largest in the world. Despite this significant audience base, many brands overlook the potential of vernacular communication in their strategies.

Rogerwilco, a leading South African end-to-end digital customer experience (CX) agency, published its 2023 Township CX Report, debunking the misconception that vernacular markets are not lucrative. The report highlights the vibrant, culture-rich township economy, which has an estimated market value of R100 billion, with approximately 55% of the market considered formal and 45% informal.

Around R160 billion in cash is spent annually at the estimated 200,000 spaza shops, which contribute significantly to South Africa’s GDP and employ millions of people. Despite this significant economic activity, the township economy remains largely untapped and misunderstood, underscoring the need for businesses to adapt their communication strategies accordingly.

Investing in a multi-lingual communication strategy

Investing in an intentional and authentic multi-lingual communication strategy is crucial for businesses to effectively reach their target audiences. It’s not just about adding a few greetings or sentences here and there: it’s about truly resonating with all segments of the audience.

As Nelson Mandela famously said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” Businesses that speak the language of their customers convey cultural understanding and foster stronger connections based on trust.

Incorporating vernacular communication strategies has proven to enhance performance and impact for businesses.

According to Kantar’s 2023 Media Reactions report, brands incorporating local languages and culturally relevant content have seen notable improvements in consumer engagement and trust. Brands such as Nandos, MTN, and Savanna Premium Cider have experienced increased engagement by adopting these strategies​​. This principle also extends to B2B communications.

For instance, South African telecom giant MTN has effectively used localised marketing strategies when partnering with local businesses, resulting in stronger business relationships and more successful collaborations. By tailoring their communications to reflect the cultural and linguistic preferences of their partners, MTN has fostered deeper trust and mutual respect, ultimately driving better business outcomes.

In addition to driving business success, vernacular communication has been crucial in influencing social and behavioural responses during health crises. The East African region effectively applied vernacular communication during the Ebola epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic, demonstrating its power in conveying critical, life-saving information to diverse communities in their own languages.

In conclusion

Businesses must prioritise tailored communication strategies that resonate on a cultural level. Embracing cultural diversity and speaking the language of your audiences is not just a strategy for success; it’s a commitment to building deeper, more meaningful relationships with your audience. This approach not only opens new market opportunities but also strengthens connections and enhances engagement across diverse segments.

Let us continue to celebrate and leverage the rich cultural tapestry that defines South Africa and Africa. By communicating with our audiences in languages they understand, we honour their heritage and build lasting bonds founded on trust and mutual respect.



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