Feature Article - September/October 2014

Rewards Without Borders

Incentives & Rewards Around the Globe

By Brian Summerfield


A few decades ago, GE was bringing some of its product lines to market throughout East Asia. To promote its offerings in this region, it turned to a slogan that had served it very well in North America: "We bring good things to life." However, the phrase didn't translate quite right for a few of the countries that the company was targeting. Instead, it came out as something like, "We bring your ancestors back from the dead." Not exactly the kind of message they wanted to send in cultures where ancestors are honored and revered.

These sorts of misunderstandings, while not exactly inevitable, more or less come with the territory when doing business overseas. Differences in culture, custom and language all but ensure something will go wrong at some point when a business's operations cross borders, whether that's for a product promotion or a new initiative to incentivize behaviors and goals for the workforce.

If you want to avoid these sorts of issues with programs designed to effect change or improve performance among your company's employees in other countries, it's important to keep the following points in mind.

The Universal Appeal of Rewards

The first thing to remember as you develop incentives programs that go into unfamiliar territory—figuratively and literally—is that they are well regarded just about everywhere. There aren't really any cultures that will respond negatively to rewards, in the most general sense.

"We have found that the human needs system remains similar all around the world," said David Sand, CEO and founder of UWIN IWIN, an incentives and loyalty company headquartered in South Africa that maintains a presence on three continents. "Salespeople in particular are results-driven and extremely competitive individuals, no matter which country they may be in."

"Everyone appreciates the fact that someone has made the effort to think about their engagement," said Peter Cannon, president and owner of Ticket Jones, a company that provides tickets and passes for more than 30,000 events for employee- and consumer-facing incentives, loyalty and rewards programs. His company deals with end users in more than 30 countries each week. "That part [of incentives programs] is universal. However, in terms of expectations and urgency of business, there's a wide variation."