Bulletin n° 11 - novembre 2013


Cultural and linguistic brokerage as a trust-building strategy in global expansion : the case of a French hypermarket in Canton

Betty Beeler, Wei Zhao


In this article we explore the role of linguistic and cultural brokerage in the success of multinationals' global expansion, focusing on the power of a shared system of meaning to build trust and create a sense of shared identity between international partners. Specifically, we draw on research on corporate social capital (Nahapiet & Ghoshal, 1998) and on social identity (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) to highlight the potential benefits of a strategy of "cultural brokerage" which calls for working with local agents embedded in the foreign multinational's team. These boundary-spanners (Levina & Vaast, 2005) are uniquely placed to understand the strategic goals of the multinationals which hire them and to "translate" – linguistically and culturally – those goals to potential local partners. The exclusive use of a lingua franca, we argue, puts those who do not master the language in a position of inferiority, while a strategy of cultural brokerage transforms the act of communicating with foreigners into a bridging action rather than a constraint, thereby favoring a spirit of cooperation and information-sharing between the partners (Louhiala-Salminen & Kankaanranta, 2012).
We report our results in a qualitative case study of the efforts of a French retailer to break into the market of a southern Chinese city, and the role which cultural brokerage played in its ultimate success. Our findings show that the retailer's way of selecting its cultural brokers, integrating them into the company, and converting their bridging actions into organizational assets allowed it to gain the trust of its potential local partners. Finally, we analyze the pertinence of the lessons learned by this French retailer for other multinationals' cultural and linguistic challenges.


cultural brokerage, social capital, language strategy, guanxi, shared identity


"Global communicative competence" (Louhiala-Salminen and Kankaanranta, 2011) is increasingly recognized as a key factor in the success of international business relations (Brett et al., 2006, Du-Babcock, 2006, Marschan et al, 1997), Indeed, gaps in communication directly threaten the outcome of negotiations between culturally different groups. A study commissioned by the European Union in 2011 on "Language Management Strategies and Best Practice in European SMEs" reported that small-and-medium-sized companies (SMEs) which developed their language capability were able to perform better in international business. By hiring staff with language skills or native speakers, for example, they managed to earn 44.5% more in sales than companies which had not engaged the services of language experts. (Hagan, 2011).

How should companies approach language or communication issues when entering a foreign market? In this article, we advocate a holistic approach to business communication, paying particular attention to what Vance et al. (2009) refer to as the "liaison role" of host country nationals. The role of a translator, we contend, is not only to transmit messages, but to facilitate a spirit of cooperation and mutual trust between two culturally different parties so that they can achieve a shared identity within the context of their shared goals. By breaking the barrier of linguistic and cultural differences, boundary-spanning cultural brokers enable the process of trust-building.

We begin with a presentation of the place of language in international business research in order to situate our particular position within that research. We then provide an overview of the concepts of social capital and social identity as they relate cultural brokerage, showing their pertinence for companies wishing to enhance their relationship-building capacity. In the last part of the theoretical section, we discuss corporate language policies found in the literature, contrasting the use of a lingua franca and cultural brokerage. In Section 2, we present our findings based on a case study involving the successes and failures of the French hypermarket Carrefour as it sought to gain a foothold in southern China, focusing on the impact of cultural brokerage on their ultimate success. In the concluding section, we analyze the broader implications of our findings for companies seeking to improve their global relationship-building capability.



Although interest in the role of language in business has come a long way since Holden's warning in 1987 that "linguists who aspire to an integration of linguistics into the management sciences face a herculean task" (Holden, 1987), several factors have hindered the advancement of scholarly research on language and management. One of the obstacles is the compartmentalization of scientific disciplines in general, leading linguists, organizational theorists, and sociologists to work in separate "silos" (Holden, 1987, Harzing and Feely, 2008, Bargiela-Chiappini, 2003, Victor, 2009). As a result, linguists often lack familiarity with management issues, just as management scholars tend to hold a rather mechanical view of language, failing to capture the complexities of communication across culturally different groups (Kassis-Henderson, 2005, Staber, 2006, Harzing and Feely, 2008). The dearth of language-management scholarship has also been attributed to the predominance of deterministic or functionalist theories of culture (McSweeney, 2009, Sachmann et al., 2004), which does not address the cross-cultural communication needs of managers. Language and culture experts, in other words, have not sufficiently explored issues that reflect the reality of the workplace (Holden, 1987, Thomas, 2007, Harzing and Feely, 2008).

It is important to note, however, that not all intercultural scholarship is based on a static view of cultures, and practitioners and organizational scholars have indeed begun to collaborate, resulting in such promising theories as negotiated culture (Salk & Brannen, 2000), "multiple cultures" perspective (Sackmann & Phillips, 2004), shared identity (Tajfel & Turner, 1979, Shin & Jackson, 2003), postcolonial criticism (Prasad et al., 2012), and cultural dilemma reconciliation (Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars, 2000). In addition, communication theories such as rapport management (Spencer-Oatey, 2000) and communication accommodation (Gallois et al., 1988) are examples of language theory applied to management. Although an in-depth discussion of these perspectives is beyond the scope of this paper, it is worth noting that this paper is rooted in the ongoing multi-paradigmatic research which subscribes to a dynamic vision of cultural adaptation in which communication and networking play a key role.


Research on management shows that a relationship-building capability is vital to a company's global expansion (Dyer & Singh, 1998, Zhang & Huxham, 2009) and that communication is one of the keys to relationship-building (Holden, 2002, Zhu et al., 2006). Marschan-Piekkari, Welch, & Welch, (1999), for example, found that language was at the heart of a Finnish elevator company company's difficulties in integrating its business units. In a study of business relations between Israelis and Indians, Zaidman (2001) found that in order to work together on a joint business project, culturally different team members had to find a common way of communicating, without which the project was doomed to failure.

Managers and scholars also recognize the role of language-as-power in the development of business relations (Bourdieu, 1991, Vaara et al., 2005). According to Brett et al. (2006) and Neeley (2012), a person's language competence can diminish or enhance his or her status, in the company and in intercultural contexts, leading to situations where the professional expertise of those who lack language skills is under-recognized and under-utilized, and those who happen to speak certain languages but lack professional skills may find themselves exercising strategic roles for which they are unprepared. During international negotiations, the stronger language speakers may knowingly or unwittingly create difficulties for the weaker language speakers, hindering the development of good relations. We will come back to this point when we examine the impact of a lingua franca on a company's goals abroad.


It is not enough to acknowledge the importance of relationships in global expansion. Companies need strategies which lead to useful contacts with the right local partners, as wrong choices or lengthy fruitless searches can be costly and detrimental to the outcome of the project. We turn now to research on social capital and social identity to shed light on cultural brokerage as a corporate strategy. The link between social capital, social identity, and cultural brokerage will then be demonstrated in the case study in Section 2.

Social capital and cultural brokerage

There is a lack of agreement on the definition of social capital, as it can refer to (1) resources used in the building of good relations, (2) the good relations resulting from those resources, and (3) the benefits resulting from having good relations (Burt, 2000, Nahapiet and Ghoshal, 1998, Ponthieux, 2003). According to Bourdieu (1980), social capital is "the aggregate of all actual or potential resources linked to the possession of a durable network of relations", whereas Lin et al. (2001) define it as the investment in one's personal and network relations, and Burt (2005) refers to it as "the advantages, resources, and privileges that come from one's position in a network". For our purposes, research on social capital helps us understand how the strategic management of relationships policy can facilitate the achievement of corporate goals such as knowledge transfer and market entry (Gabbay and Leenders, 1999).

Nahapiet and Ghoshal provide a useful three-dimensional approach to social capital to show how it functions: The first dimension is the cognitive dimension, or people's shared beliefs, codes, language, and narratives. The second, the relational dimension, encompasses trust and reciprocity between people, and the third, the structural dimension, denotes network activity (Nahapiet and Ghoshal, 1998). The structural dimension is of particular interest to us, as it involves the concepts of bonding, bridging, and linking. "Bonding" refers to relations between people of a community who have close ties and similar ways of thinking; "bridging" refers to relations between people who are more loosely connected, for example, through mutual friends; and "linking" applies to connections of connections such as institutional contacts or political ties (Woolcock, 2001, Putnam, 2000).

Cultural brokers acting on behalf of multinationals can be seen as agents of social capital in several regards. First, they provide the cognitive dimension of social capital through their knowledge of local customs and the local language, and can therefore convey the message of their foreign associates in the most favorable way, helping both parties understand the other party's behavior and reactions. Furthermore, relational social capital, or relations based on reciprocity, trust, and cooperation, is facilitated by cultural brokers who can coach the foreign visitors in their efforts to establish relations. And finally, well-trained cultural brokers help build structural social capital, or networking capability, through bridging and linking activities such as introductions to potential sources of support. Without their intervention and advice, foreign negotiators are more likely to commit errors and miss opportunities to build the right relations with the right local actors.

For the purposes of this study, it is important to distinguish between the Western concept of social capital and the Chinese concept, guanxi. Both guanxi and Western social capital are often described as "mutually beneficial relationships critical to success" in business or in life (Budari & Huang, 2006), but guanxi is more complex than Western social capital, implying a deep trust that can only be earned over time through acts of loyalty, reciprocity, and a personal investment in the relationship. For this reason, foreigners, including multinationals such as Carrefour, rarely have direct access to guanxi, and need to rely on their Chinese partners to enter the market.

Social identity and cultural brokerage

According to social identity theory, people identify with groups with which they share meaning, and from which they derive their self-esteem (Tajfel and Turner, 1979). This tendency to socialize with like-minded people can lead to in-group and out-group behavior, potentially resulting in distrust and rejection of outsiders. It is important therefore for members of foreign multinationals to create a sense of shared identity with local actors in order to gain their trust and cooperation (Zhang & Huxham, 2009). Hinds and Mortensen (2005) recommend that managers recognize and encourage values that are shared by most participants in a joint project, and downplay or discourage those which divide the group members, allowing a spirit of cohesion to emerge. Cultural brokerage, we contend, makes it possible to detect and highlight common values, downplaying those which might cause tension, on condition that all parties trust the cultural broker.


In elaborating their approach to language, companies must take into account the company's strategy for global expansion, the degree of cultural diversity of its strategic partners, and the availability of linguistic resources. For example, "polycentric" companies which put an emphasis on responsiveness to local markets (Perlmutter, 1969) may need greater foreign language competence to reach their objectives than do "ethnocentric" companies, or companies pursuing what Prahalad and Doz (1987) call an integration strategy. According to Bartlett and Ghoshal (1989), many companies need to be transnational to be successful, which is to say that they have a vested interest in following a strategy which combines responsiveness to local markets with the integration of their global operations. Accordingly, their language needs must be met at several levels.

Whatever the strategy, companies use a variety of approaches to communicate across cultures. Technology-based tools such as multi-language e-commerce web pages and corporate websites are widely used in addition to internal resources such as language training, online language programs and recruitment of employees with language skills. External resources include local agents, native speakers, student interns, and professional translators, some of whom may act as "cultural brokers" for the multinational companies (Hagan, 2011). Harzing and Feely (2003) have classified language strategies in companies according to the degree of formality or institutionalization of the language policy, contrasting formal, organization-level solutions such as a lingua franca, language training, or translators with everyday, informal practices such as code-switching (changing from one language to another) and the use of redundancy to ensure comprehension.

The use of a lingua franca such as English or the language of headquarters throughout a multinational's units is widely practiced (Harzing & Feely, 2003, Marschan et al., 1999, Firth, 2009, Neeley, 2012, Charles & Marschan-Piekkari, 2002, Vaara et al., 2005, Brett et al., 2006) by multinationals wishing to avoid the communication nightmares of a "Tower of Babel". However, the applicability of a strict lingua franca policy is open to debate, as employees often resort to local languages or hybrid solutions when possible (Vaara et al., 2005, Fredriksson et al., 2006). In addition, the linguistic supremacy of one partner over the other can prevent the two parties from creating a sense of shared identity which is essential for successful international collaboration. In other words, a lingua franca leads to the problem of language-as-power, stifling the bridging action of a common language.

Harzing and Feely (2003) classify as "bridging practices" a number of solutions that lie between official policies such as a lingua franca and everyday practices such as code-switching. These bridging actions include: Bilingual employees acting as language nodes, inpatriation (the assignment of subsidiary members to headquarters), expatriation, non-native local inhabitants, and parallel information networks. The point which these sources have in common is their ability to act as cultural boundary-spanners as well as linguistic experts. With their knowledge of local networks, cross-cultural awareness, empathy, and talent for coaching foreign visitors, they play the vital role of information resource brokers, change agents, and communication facilitators (Vance et al., 2009)

The selection and management of cultural brokers requires a long-term vision of language policy (Marschan et al., 1999). It also requires an approach to communication that considers the act of translation as a culturally-bound social action, performed in accordance with a specific situation for specific recipients and purposes (Vermeer, 1989), rather than as the "process of finding a target language equivalent for a source language utterance" (Pinchuck, 1977). In the case of international business meetings, we argue, translation should be conducted as a strategic act of mediation.

In the case study we present below, cultural brokerage plays a role in the outcome of the efforts of a French hypermarket to break into the market of a southern Chinese city. Gaining the trust of the local authorities and real estate companies was crucial for the French team, but, as we shall see, their early attempts to win the confidence of their Chinese partners were quite shaky. Ultimately, cultural brokerage made it possible for the multinational to acquire social capital and achieve a sense of shared identity with the local population, which in turn paved the way to cooperation and successful joint projects.



We present our findings in a qualitative case study of the early stages of Carrefour's market entry into south China. The qualitative approach is well suited to cases which provide a "socially-constructed" view of complex social phenomena, with rich data collected through a variety of methods such as interaction with the informants, internal observation, and consultation of official documents (Creswell, 2003, Yin, 1994). In our case, one of the authors participated for eight years in Carrefour's development in south China, first as a member of a local company then as a member of Carrefour's team. In some respects, therefore, our case study uses an auto-ethnographic narrative approach (Humphreys, 2005) reflecting what Creswell (2003) calls a privileged insider's view of the situation. We have taken care, however, to confront his personal perspective with external sources to provide a rich account of the case.


The context

Carrefour was created in 1959 in France. With 9500 stores in 32 countries today, it is the top retailer in Europe and the No. 2 retailer in the world. 57% of its sales are generated outside of France. Carrefour entered the Chinese market in 1995, negotiating with municipal authorities city by city. Regulations often fluctuated, as did the application of those regulations, necessitating the intervention of local power brokers with access to municipal authorities. Carrefour was ultimately successful in its bid to set up in China, as demonstrated by the opening of its 211th store in China on July 16, 2012.[1]

Our case focuses on Carrefour's efforts to succeed in the southern Chinese city from 1994 to 2002, and on the lessons it learned about cultural brokerage through trial and error. Although the company had already managed at that point in time to set up stores in several large cities in China, including Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, but the property market in the city where our case took place proved to be one of the toughest in the country. In spite of the many setbacks, the company learned quickly from its mistakes, which, according to the CEO of Carrefour China at the time, provided more valuable lessons than did the successful operations.

The importance of selecting the right local partners
Up to the end of 2004, Chinese regulations required all foreign companies to set up joint ventures with local partners. From the outset, Carrefour's management understood that beyond legal considerations, local partners were vital to the company's interests in China, as they helped the company understand the Chinese market, win the approval of the municipal authorities, build local networks, and obtain the best locations for its stores. According to the CEO of Carrefour China at that time:

We felt that to enter so difficult and complex a market—a huge market—we would need a local partner to understand the market and to move faster. For example, in Shanghai I have a very good partner, Lianhua Supermarket Company. They helped us a lot with the local government—to introduce us and to explain what Carrefour is.

The retailer quickly learned that choosing its partners was not an easy task. In 1994, negotiations with a property developer broke down when Carrefour's representative, an American woman of Taiwanese origins, failed to get along with the representative of a Chinese state-owned company who was a former officer in the historic People's Liberation Army. Not only did they not trust each other, each felt disdain for the identity, values, and origins of the other. When the former officer reminded the woman that his army had driven the Taiwanese out of mainland China, the Taiwanese manager snapped back that she was not Chinese. Both representatives were talented and experienced, both capable of understanding each other linguistically, but their contrasting cultural identities prevented them from establishing a climate of cooperation.

The wrong choice of a partner created a more serious problem for Carrefour in 1996. In an effort to find a local partner for a joint venture, Carrefour went through a Taiwanese company, one of its closest partners. Unfortunately, once the contract was signed, it turned out that the local agent was located 40 kilometers from Canton in an industrial zone which could only be accessed by a tunnel in Canton. Worse, this agent had no relationship with the right people in Guangzhou. Carrefour had no other choice but to seek a new partner, having learned that the partner of a partner might not necessarily be a useful partner.

In addition to finding the right representatives, Carrefour needed to show that it was a worthy partner. During high-level discussions with a prominent property-owner with whom the retailer wished to establish a strategic alliance, it became clear that the developer did not believe in this foreign retailer's ability to reach its target of projected earnings. The negotiations broke down after a year as neither party was willing to compromise. Carrefour continued to put forward its international visibility while the developer insisted that the mall was to be the biggest in Asia and should therefore command prices at the international level.

This experience taught Carrefour that it had to establish its local reputation as a trustworthy partner through activities aimed at cooperation and mutual trust. When one important real estate owner told the company that it could not get the first floor of his shopping mall, for example, the company agreed to move to the underground level to show its goodwill. The company's first store in the city was made possible when it accepted a less-than-perfect offer of the second and third floors of a mall, on condition that it be allowed to close half of the space in the shopping mall and increase the surface of the store.

Personal guanxi leads to cultural brokerage

The retailer began its relationship-building in the southern city by contacting a trusted French expatriate in the banking sector who was well-known in the local expatriate community. This expatriate recommended a Chinese friend with excellent connections, and thus began the chain of trust-building events, resulting in a network of local power brokers, property developers, and suppliers ready to work with Carrefour. Although the expatriate and the Chinese intermediary were essentially linking agents rather than true cultural brokers, the young Chinese assistant of the intermediary soon took on a bridging role thanks to his ability to speak Cantonese, Mandarin, English and French. Indeed, communicating with Carrefour executives in their own language helped him win their trust, which led to the signing of a formal contract. As he interpreted the local context to the French CEO, he also interpreted the French management's goals to the local community, building up a local network of guanxi which later supported the company's entry and initial business in the city. Having carried out the initial contacts and participated in key negotiations, this cultural broker eventually joined the company and became Carrefour's bridge to other cultural brokers.

Converting guanxi-based relationships into a company asset

Most foreign companies are aware of the importance of guanxi in China and they hire the most talented local agents for that purpose. However, the companies run the risk of losing these agents' contacts when they leave the company. It is important, therefore, that they learn to transform local brokers' personal networks into organizational assets. In the case of Carrefour, cultural brokers played the role of liaison and translator, but once the contact was established, Carrefour managers got personally involved with the new partners, meeting them regularly and interacting with them directly. Cultural brokers continued to provide support, ever ready to advise expatriates in case of misunderstandings, but it was essential that they did not remain the only channels of inter-organizational communication.

Retaining good cultural brokers with international experience proved to be as much of a challenge as finding them in the first place, as they were very much in demand. In addition, the more successful Carrefour was in China, the more local strategic partners it needed, and consequently, the more cultural brokers it sought to engage. To accommodate the cultural brokers and to keep their trust in the long term, the company set up a formal organization of "public relations managers" who worked closely with expatriates. Training sessions were organized, and expertise was shared. Through management or leadership training programs, the company also rotated promising young professionals from regional operations to headquarters for mentoring by the senior cultural broker professional. This helped the young professionals understand the strategic vision of the company in China and gain exposure to the company's guanxi-based operations, so that when they returned to their regions, they were much better prepared to take up the local brokering role.

A database was also set up, enabling brokers to share records of their activities, contacts, addresses, interactions, lobbying, etc., and to retrieve them whenever the original contact-initiators left the company. The very existence of a database containing each broker's information and projects, consultable by all, generated a spirit of shared identity. Thus, thanks to all these organizational elements, the individual relationship-based guanxi then became a kind of corporate asset.


As our case has demonstrated, Carrefour's expertise in relationship-management was a key factor in its rapid expansion on the Chinese market. By choosing to rely on culturally talented agents to build its local networks, the retailer was able to generate social capital and create a shared identity with partners who were ready to trust them. In so doing, it proved its ability to adapt to Chinese culture without denying its own expertise and values.

This practice of transforming Chinese guanxi into an organizational asset required a special kind of linguistic and cultural "translator", a boundary-spanner who could help turn the trust between local agents and their networks into trust between Carrefour and those networks. The young French-speaking Chinese agent who won the confidence of the top management of Carrefour Asia and opened access to local networks is a perfect example. When asked what qualities he felt were necessary for this job, his answer reflected a holistic approach to cultural brokerage :

    • First, these people must be entrepreneurial as well as good at networking, ready to detect and seize opportunities. They must know when to initiate a contact, and when to remain in the background. And they must have a sense of humor!

What do they have in common with traditional translators?

    • They must be able to adopt the habits and communication style of each party. When I explained the point of view of the Chinese partner to French expatriates, I behaved and spoke more like expatriates. When I conveyed the message of the French to my Chinese compatriots, I used the Chinese speaking style and way of behavior.

The cultural broker's customized communication styles illustrate the importance of a shared social identity in bridging two culturally diverse parties. It could be argued that each party remains fundamentally different from the other, but thanks to the broker, they are able to see the other party through a familiar lens. To be sure, as the two parties interact, it is essential that they show respect for each other's culture by learning about the other's ways, but these efforts cannot replace the vital bridging role of local agents.

Finally, our theoretical and empirical findings offer valuable lessons for multinationals pursuing a strategy of global expansion. First and foremost, their method of communicating with international partners should be seen as a strategic issue, affecting the outcome of their development abroad. The exclusive use of a professional translator or a lingua franca to conduct intercultural negotiations risk depriving them of the linking and bridging capability of a cultural broker. As we have seen, cultural brokerage requires a long-term strategy, as the company must choose the right local agents, convert their social capital into a corporate asset, retain the best ones, and organize their actions at the operational and strategic levels.

There are limits to the applicability of our research, of course. Our findings were collected from a single case involving one multinational and must be verified using the experience of other companies. In addition, it is not possible to generalize from the Chinese context – which has a distinctive form of relationship-building – without testing those findings in other contexts. However, our case has provided a unique opportunity to study the impact of cultural brokerage on the success of global expansion efforts in one culture. We recommend that researchers build on our findings by examining other companies' use of bridging agents in China as well as in other cultures. Finally, we encourage management practitioners and researchers to work together with social scientists and linguists to further develop the theory and practice of cultural brokerage.



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