How to Bridge the Dutch-Belgian Cultural Gap and Stay On-Brand

9th Feb 2021
Entre les lignes

The Dutch-Belgian Cultural Gap

When researching this article, Google graciously recommended questions that other people ask, including:

  • Are the Netherlands and Belgium the same thing?

  • Is the Netherlands in Belgium?

What does this suggest? Not only do these two countries share a common tongue, but scads of people suffer from the misconception that they may even be the same place.

And in all honesty, it’s hard to fault them for it. Not too long ago, we addressed their intimate, shared history in our brief analysis of luxury branding in Belgium. Belgium does have a long tradition of being in an on–again, off–again relationship with the Netherlands.

The trick, in this case, is to look at Belgium and the Netherlands as a classic case of “opposites attract”. Why? Because culturally speaking, they are on opposite ends of the spectrum. 

This may seem cliché, but there is an endless supply of articles available on cultural brand blunders available on the internet. Andrew Seale’s “Seven Epic Cases of Companies That Failed Internationally” provides one of the nicest breakdowns.

When it comes to multilingual branding strategy, however, Belgium and the Netherlands are a curious pair. Because really, what should you do when faced with a common language, but cultures as different as night and day?

As a Belgian-born international translation agency, we know the nuances of how to appeal to both cultures and how to apply that expertise beyond. Ready to translate your content? Get in touch today.

And Never the Twain Shall Meet?

The Dutch-Belgian paradox can be successfully approached with a smart blend of tact and strategy. With those on hand, you’ll be able to:

  • Identify cultural differences and apply them to your branding strategy.

  • Recognize how a turn of phrase and subtle contrasts in language can tilt things in your favor.

  • Adopt a nuanced strategy to boost your brand’s salience.

In short, we’ll give you a glimpse of how to stay on-brand despite cultural differences by relying on a quintessentially Belgian cultural trait, the love of loopholes.

Flemish word of the day: carottentrekker, literally “carrot puller” – anyone who instinctively looks for a loophole to get out of an unpleasant duty or situation.

Bridge the Gap

By providing you with an in-depth look at the Dutch-Belgium situation, we’re eager to help you add a flourish of success to your global branding strategy. How?

While shared language may seem like a godsend to expanding brands, it can often be the prelude to future gaffs. We want to help you avoid that pitfall by showing you how sometimes, the same language can lull you into a false sense of security.

It’s always crucial to check the culture before pushing forward with your branding strategy.

Belgium and the Netherlands – A Culture Clash for the Ages

To outsiders, the Dutch-Belgian gap is perplexing. After all, they share a language, a border, history, and aside from the Dutch being noticeably taller, there aren’t many visible differences between them, either.

So, how are such seemingly similar people so disparate culturally? And more importantly, what impact does that have on seamless brand positioning?

Straight talk… or not

We’ll be Dutch about things and get straight to the point. It’s important to keep in mind that Belgians and the Dutch appreciate very different things when it comes to communication style. Why?

Well, to explain in detail, we would probably need to pen a tome or two addressing history, religion, sociology, and so on and so forth. But as this is merely a humble post in our Magazine so we’ve trimmed the frills for you.

It’s been mentioned once already, but the Dutch appreciate directness and are inclined to tune out “fluff”. They prefer to say things plainly and have done with it so that with everything out on the table they can make clear well-informed decisions.

In terms of marketing strategy, that tells you which key values you should keep in mind:

  • Honesty

  • Pragmatism

  • Efficiency

In contrast, there’s no quicker way to turn a Belgian off than to dive straight into your pitch. Belgians appreciate nuance and expect to be eased into new ideas, showing them the courtesy of taking things slowly.

The hallmark values involved?

  • Patience

  • Prudence

  • Time investment

Apply social niceties where appropriate

The right tone and dose of familiarity will either catch your audience’s attention and turn them on to your brand or cause them to dismiss you out of hand. Calculating them properly, however, means understanding how the Dutch and Belgians look at their relationships.

For example, Belgians are more private and tend towards a vertical structure. That means your brand communications should adapt accordingly. How?

Retain a modicum of formality and think genteel reserve when communicating about your brand. Lasting relationships with Belgians are not made overnight (or a business lunch). The same goes for brand commitment.

The underlying values: formality, predictability, trust.

Dutch relational culture essentially operates in reverse. Despite retaining traditional title distinctions there has been a clear shift to a flat structure. The traditional “chain-of-command” is often subverted or ignored altogether. 

In short, the Dutch respond favorably to a high degree of familiarity in brand communications. Even for luxury brands, the tone should be accessible for all.

Underlying values: openness, equity, adventurousness.

Gatekeepers vs Risk-takers

When it comes to change and innovation, it helps to keep the difference in communication approaches in mind because there’s a strong analogy between the two.

Where Belgians traditionally take a “look before you leap” approach, the Dutch are more cavalier. They tend to be more open to new brands and new ways of doing things in general. They enjoy being first-in-line to take the road less traveled.

What values should you appeal to?

  • Pride

  • Boldness

  • Curiosity

Belgians are more cautious about investing in novelties, but that doesn’t mean they’re averse. However, persuasion requires patience and a solid understanding of the rationale behind their tentative approach.

Key values:

  • Tradition

  • Reliability

  • Creativity

Aesthetics and Luxury

Here too, Belgians and the Dutch take divergent approaches. For instance:

  1. The Dutch purchase more luxury items but are far more cost-conscious, as opposed to Belgians who buy less luxury items, but who are willing to invest more.

  2. Belgians have a historic appreciation for beautiful art and design, but classically prefer understated items, while the Dutch are more willing to show off something edgier or more avant-garde.

  3. The Dutch are more ostentatious about their design and luxury choices.

How to Bridge (Not Just Mind) the Gap

Now that you have an inkling of how cavernous the Dutch-Belgian cultural gap is, the question becomes – how do you bridge it? After all, remaining seamlessly on-brand is imperative to your success. But as the civil rights activist and actor Theodore Bikel so aptly put it:

“No doubt, unity is something to be desired, to be striven for, but it cannot be willed by mere declarations.”

No, in this unique situation (and in others where a common tongue and contrasting cultures are involved) concrete strategy is called for – a set path that will turn your goals into reality.

Remember the Flemish word of the day, carottentrekker, mentioned at the start of this article? Well, as a Belgian-born agency, we naturally have our own delightful set of “loopholes” to help you mind and bridge the gap when branding on the Dutch and Belgian markets.

Belgium, Subtle Swagger & the Power of Allusion

If there is one thing that Belgians appreciate, then it is the art of understatement and subtle allusion to the features that make a brand more stylish, ethereal, or impeccably crafted. The reason for this?

Brands that are too forward in their approach leave a sour impression, suggesting that costliness and claims to luxury merely foreshadow yet another flash-in-the-pan. Belgians are a fundamentally cautious people, and they value an approach that doesn’t upend their sense of security.

 So, when branding in Flemish, there are three things to remember:

  1. Craft your words with care. A subtle flourish will go a long way toward winning the market in your favor.

  2. Appeal to tradition and status, but don’t put too fine a point on it.

  3. Focus on design and craftsmanship.

The first point is a given, while point two, certainly where subtle reference to status is concerned is somewhat trickier. A linguistic tip to remember? Do use the formal “U” (you) form. English may have dispensed with their thee’s and thou’s centuries ago, but that is not the case in Belgium.

To profile your brand for the upper echelons of Belgian society, a certain formality is expected.

Point number three is key. While Belgians are famous for being modest and reserved, they are unabashedly proud of their art and design heritage, from the Flemish Masters to Panamarenko and Victor Horta’s sumptuously gorgeous Art Nouveau architectural masterpieces – Belgians have an impeccably discerning eye for beauty.

Hotel Solvay, Avenue Louise 81 Brussles. Photo from Wikicommons, Author Zinneke

The Netherlands, Go Boldly or Not at All

“A little audacity never hurt anyone” – is a mantra to remember when branding in the Netherlands. The trick to tipping the scales in your favor on the Dutch market is to be bold and NEVER beat about the bush. Attempts at subtly are apt to lead to frustration among your target audience, who will quickly lose interest.

And given the Dutch penchant for novelty and future-forward thinking, that would be an unforgivable faux pas.

There are three strategic points to keep in mind for your Dutch audience:

  1. Be forthright. Open pride in your brand will garner respect.

  2. Emphasize what makes your product edgy or novel. Anything old hat will squelch, not pique curiosity.

  3. Adopt an affable tone; the Dutch do not stand on formality.

Let’s dive into point one. Uninterested in playing games, the Dutch prefer being told openly what makes your brand worthy of being shown off to the world. They appreciate being told what they’re buying into, in no uncertain terms. 

And they want to know how this will elevate their image.

Culinarily speaking, the Dutch are famous for being hopelessly plain and unadventurous in their eating habits. But when it comes to new brands, particularly where luxury and innovation are involved, they love nothing better than to be ahead of the game

If your brand is quirky, eccentric, or on the cutting-edge of fashion and technology: flaunt it!

Lastly, make sure the tone of your communications is personable and friendly. As we mentioned earlier, the Dutch value equity and accessibility, and that means that even if your brand is out of many people’s price range – never make that your baseline.

Linguistically speaking, that means you can and should drop the “U”.

A Transcendent Approach

It should be clear by now that culture, even where a shared language is involved, cannot be avoided. More pointedly, it’s a crucial success factor.

If you happened to be struck by a wave of fatigue due to a busy work week’s cares and concerns, here’s our point in a nutshell:

  1. Nuance and subtlety are paramount in Belgian branding communication, while the Dutch appreciate a more straightforward approach.

  2. The Dutch prefer accessible, friendly messaging, while the Flemish expect more reserved, formal wording.

  3. The Flemish and Dutch both hold style and design in high regard, but the Dutch are more open to innovation, and the Flemish value allusions to tradition.

The tips above are intended to help you on your way because nothing makes our heart skip a beat quite like making your brand excel. Nevertheless, we’d be fibbing if we promised you smooth sailing with these tips alone.

At Entre les lignes, we have the in-house expertise to not only hone our cultural and linguistic approach with finesse, but we guarantee your brand’s continuity across the cultural divide. We have a special knack for spotting those crucial intersections where culture and values meet, especially when it comes to Belgium and the Netherlands.

If you need a translation agency in Belgium to take you beyond “mere declarations” and transform your cross-cultural communications into branding gold, Entre les lignes is the place to be.

As a Belgian-born international translation agency, we know the nuances of how to appeal to both cultures and how to apply that expertise beyond. Ready to translate your content? Get in touch today.