Outsourcing & the gig economy: a prime example of culturally incompetent marketing

This article is the first in our Cultural Competence in Practice series, which will deconstruct and analyze real-life, culturally incompetent marketing strategies and business practices. As advocates of inclusive and culturally competent business practices & liberatory marketing strategies, we believe analyzing real-life scenarios is more insightful than merely explaining the theory. 
We also want to add that we are learning and adjusting all of our own business and marketing practices to be more culturally competent and liberatory under a capitalist, patriarchal, racist, classist, etc. system. We aren’t perfect and we know we can always improve, so with that… 
Let’s dig in!

If you’re an online business owner or work for an online business, you probably know that outsourcing has become a new normal in today’s interconnected, gig-economy-driven business world.

Although the “gig economy” has given folx like freelancers, solopreneurs, and others who want to get into the world of online work the opportunity to make money with online skills – the reputation that “outsourcing” and its partner-in-crime, offshoring, has made us approach this with a critical eye.

Let’s approach this with critical thinking.

Whether you’re a solopreneur running a small online shop or a skilled professional offering 1:1 consultancy services, you can now hire external team members to delegate any task, even if you don’t have a massive operations budget. Freelancers, independent contractors, temporary workers, and pay-per-project consultants have facilitated that reality. 

Moreover, with the increased popularity that remote work has experienced over the past two years, online business owners can now find a much-needed helping hand anywhere they desire.

The world has now become the new hiring playground of online business owners!

And while some folx consider outsourcing and offshoring practices as an endless source of workers’ pains (which is completely understandable, given the negative impact that outsourcing and offshoring have on skilled workers’ futures), it’s hard to deny that both practices have also benefited foreign workers in South Asian countries like Singapore, India, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

According to a 2018 KellyOCG report on the gig economy, a whopping 85% of hiring managers in South Asia outsource to freelancers.

But not everything in the garden is rosy. To thrive (or survive) in the gig economy, freelancers need to stay on top of their game which, in uber-competitive economies, sometimes means giving in to the extreme demands of some clients and managers.

And since the gig economy remains unregulated in South Asia, freelancers often become easy targets for exploitative and oppressive business tactics –underpayment and overworking being the two main offenders. 

What’s more, these two practices run rampant within certain outsourcing agencies catering to a clientele primarily composed of overwhelmed small business owners –some of them in desperate need of a helping hand.

Since the target audience of such “agencies” is really specific, the marketing strategies agencies end up using relies on heavy misrepresentation of the truth and gross oversimplification of facts.

The type of marketing materials that outsourcing agencies usually put out (particularly those located in the Philippines), more often than not, looks like this:

Source: Digital Marketing Philipines

If you put up your cultural competence glasses, does anything in this infographic rub you as wrong? To us, it seems like cultural incompetence at its best. 

And since we’re really all about uncovering manipulative marketing strategies, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to bring in some cultural awareness to the table.

READ: What Is Liberatory & Culturally Competent Marketing?

Here are our thoughts on this strange marketing piece and some of its worst, culturally incompetent offenders.

Issue #1: Minimizing Cultural Differences (plot twist: but they DO exist!)

One of the most problematic affirmations of this promotional infographic is how the service provider depicts cultural differences as a source of major inconvenience. 

By insisting that Filipino workers are easy to work with because they easily adapt to almost any situation, the service provider promotes a one-sided business relationship. After all, the message behind those affirmations is quite clear: international business owners are not expected to adapt (or even understand) their worker’s cultural background because such background is simply non-existent. 

And why is this problematic?

For starters, it raises customers’ expectations to seriously unrealistic levels.

When you use “cultural compatibility” as a selling point, your clients will inevitably buy into the fantasy that working with Filipino contractors is pretty much like working with any other American: language, communication styles, workplace behavior, and work ethics cannot be a problem.

Except at some point, when reality finally checks in, business owners will realize that cultural differences do exist. They may be subtle, but they are there. And ignoring them can only lead to disappointment, sour working relationships, and unfair expectations.

Issue #2: Sugar-coating colonialism?

As the infographic duly points out, one of the main reasons why American business owners decide to outsource to the Philippines is to reduce costs. A Filipino worker will charge way, way less than their American counterpart –74% less, in fact. 

Again, as the infographic acutely points out, if an online business owner wants to hire an SEO specialist, they can expect to pay, at most, 500 USD per month (while in North America, the average monthly salary for an SEO specialist is no less than 3K). Obviously, this is quite attractive from the business’ point of view.

Unfortunately, for workers, the story is entirely different.

Although the Filipino outsourcing industry has been growing, workers are not benefiting. As any new freelancer with some knowledge of platforms like Upwork and Fiverr can testify, selling your services for pennies is a race to the bottom: there will always be someone willing to do the same work for less and less.

This is exactly what has happened to Filipino workers over the past few years.

As Maddy Thompson has pointed out in this article, despite the growth in demand, workers’ salaries are not increasing; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Since pay conditions have declined, in 2020, two-fifths of the BPO workforce is employed with a floating/no-work-no-pay status, which means that once a project ends, payslips stop arriving (just like freelancers who are always on the chase for their next Upwork project).

In addition to this, the COVID-19 pandemic revealed that companies that offshore a good chunk of their operations to the Philippines don’t really consider outsourced workers as valuable employees. When lockdowns and work-from-home modes became the norm, many companies preferred to opt-out of their contracts instead of offering flexible working conditions to their offshore employees, which has led to rising unemployment and turnover rates.

Naturally, all these points beg one question: if Filipino BPO workers are systematically underpaid and exploited, aren’t foreign businesses who decide to offshore part of the problem?

Or worst of all, when companies don’t question the system’s unfairness, aren’t they perpetuating old colonialist practices? That’s some food for thought. 

Offshoring agencies may now be promoting their services as an excellent cost-alternative for foreign businesses, but consider the following scenario: what will happen to the industry when another country suddenly becomes the new hotspot for offshoring?

If foreign business owners never learn to value and appreciate their Filipino offshore workers as multifaceted human beings who bring value to a company, once the cost-benefit disappears, what reason will business owners have to keep hiring Filipino workers?

The colonialist vibes that this marketing material radiates only become more aggravating when you consider how the Philippines were colonized by “richer” and “more powerful” countries – which has lasting impacts on the economy and work culture, today.

As the infographic kindly reminds us, for more than 300 years, the Philippines were a Spanish colony. Then, only to be colonized by the United States for 48 years after Spain. Naturally, over that time both countries used the Philippines’ resources and workforce to their advantage. And, nowadays, the situation doesn’t seem to be much different: foreign businesses offshore their operations to the Philippines because doing so is way cheaper than hiring regular, full-time employees. 

Issue #3: Romanticizing Workaholism and Toxic Work Environments

Another disturbing point of this culturally incompetent infographic is how agencies emphasize a Filipino person’s casual willingness to adapt to the frenetic American working rhythms, never mind the mind-boggling 12-hour time difference. 

If these agencies were to explain upfront that call-center agents who deal with US-based businesses normally work night shifts (working hours usually go from 10 pm to 6 pm), small business owners would probably think twice before hiring their services. 

READ: 4 Tips for Bringing Activism to Your Social Media Channels

At this point, the question that immediately comes to our mind is a simple one. If a sensible business owner would never, ever dream of imposing unsustainable working conditions for their local employees, why is it okay to turn a blind eye when it comes to hiring foreign employees? Why do companies keep feeding the beast? 

Our immediate, gut-like response is that big businesses, particularly those with a strong, profit-first mentality, don’t normally consider the effects that systems of oppression (like indiscriminate offshoring) have on folx immersed in other cultures and other realities. Unfortunately, cultural incompetence is still the norm in corporate settings. And worst of all, this profit-centered mentality seems to be slowly spreading to some online small businesses through the use of marketing. 

The good news, however, is that online, mission-driven small businesses can still do things differently.  Here are some suggestions on how to do it. 

Do you want to create marketing materials that don’t normalize oppressive situations? Here’s our quick, 3-step guide to doing it with cultural competence

If you’re like us, you’re now probably wondering if your current marketing materials aren’t accidentally perpetuating oppressive stereotypes or damaging narratives. If that’s the case, welcome to the (r)evolution! Reconsidering your angle is the first step towards a more humane, culturally competent marketing approach. 

Here are three crucial steps that you can take to avoid making culturally incompetent mishaps, like the ones shown in the infographic above (#yikes). 

Identify your audience’s cultural differences and strive to integrate them

The ability to identify and integrate in a coherent narrative your audience’s cultural background is what will make you stand out from the crowd of traditional marketing. However, what’s challenging is that there’s no easy way to do this (if it were, cultural incompetence wouldn’t even be a thing!).

Consider for a minute how the infographic depicted Filipino BPO workers: super solid work ethics, 200% customer-centered, willing to accommodate anything, culturally neutral, etc. Now, what’s the first impression that these descriptions leave on you? Don’t they just feel a tad too general? 

For readers who are already familiar with the struggles of Filipino BPO workers, it’s quite clear that the writer of this infographic based their analysis solely on demographic data and “industry” stats. Such impersonal sources cannot simply take into account the realities (and struggles) of real human beings. 

This is why, when writing for a culturally diverse audience, your first step is ditching demographic data. Instead, do real research like understanding someone’s psychographics and ethnographics.

Strive to understand who your audience truly is, what are the nuances of their stories, and how do they perceive themselves.

Then, with your newfound, real data, create a compelling and honest narrative. Never assume that a person who loves X would simply love Y because some random stat says so.

Be mindful of your wording (language does matter)

We won’t lie to you: this part is a tricky one. Sometimes, words that you perceive as perfectly okay or neutral, can end up badly triggering someone when considered within the context of an overarching argument. Consider some phrases presented in the infographic: 

  • “Most of us are raised to work well with others and to endure and work to get things done”.
  • “According to some industry reports, the typical wage of an outsourced Filipino worker is about 75% less than an American in the same position.”
  • “Colonized by the Spaniards and Americans for about 400 years, the Philippines continues to embody many of their values and cultures until the present” (the problem is that no one ever explains what values? Are they referring to interesting things, like the Spaniards close-knit sense of community, or to something less promising, like the categorization of certain fellow humans as second-class citizens?)

Taken by themselves, these phrases are pretty much harmless. All of them contain some hard facts: Filipinos do work long shifts, they earn way less money than an American worker, and their country was once a Spanish and then American colony. Those are simple facts, right? How could someone ever go wrong by stating the facts? 

Except it happens. All the time. 

READ: How to Use Intercultural Marketing & Communications

When a culturally aware business owner (or a Filipino person who struggles with the practices of an unfair BPO system) examines these claims with a critical eye, what they see is a sleazy justification for overexerting workers.

After all, common sense tells us that “enduring” a job is not a healthy practice, deliberately paying your workers less is a one-way street advantage (nationality shouldn’t be a condition for decent pay), and stressing the colonial past seems like someone is trying to justify the old and problematic colonial practices. 

So, what can you do to avoid similar mistakes?

In our opinion, the best way to avoid wording flops is to set up a workflow that includes several revisions and approvals acting as filters. If you can get someone with a culturally competent and liberatory lens onboard in the revision process, it will be easier to spot problematic phrasing in advance. Bonus brownie points if your editor or beta reader is familiar with the culture of your target audience.

Put yourself in your audience’s shoes (#empathy).

If you only remember one thing from this massive article, let it be the following:

Your audience is the only one who can decide what works well for them and what doesn’t. 

This is why the practice of double-checking your facts with a member of your audience before posting or releasing any material is the best option. 

If you don’t have direct access to a member of your audience, ask yourself the following: if I were my target client, how would I feel when checking out this material?

Be completely honest.

A mild “no idea”, or an unenthusiastic “okay, I guess”, are clear signs that you’ll have to dig deeper. In the end, when deciding what’s acceptable and what isn’t, you’ll have to give your empathy muscles a thorough workout. 

Again, if you can reach out to a beta-reader of sorts, that’s even better. Although it lengthens your production timeline, adding steps to your revision process could save you potential future issues or flops.

To wrap things up…

We hope that this analysis of a clearly misleading marketing infographic on recruitment, hiring overseas, and offshoring shares why cultural competence is a crucial business AND marketing skill – one that mission-driven brands and businesses will find helpful. 

As we say whenever we talk about this fascinating topic, cultural competence is a skill that you cultivate over time since it pushes you to consider “normal” issues in a different light (issues that, under usual circumstances, don’t seem problematic). 

READ: What is Intercultural Copywriting?

A few things to keep in mind if you want to create culturally competent marketing materials:

  • Is the language you’re using in your marketing materials doing its part to shape and shift a culture in an industry positively or negatively?
  • What are the implications of changing a “culture” based on your marketing and business practices?
  • Are you using cultural stereotypes to market your products or services?

While recruitment marketing is the top of a “marketing funnel”, we want to share that cultural competence starts from the foundation of a business – what we consider to be the brand message, core values, and communication strategy.

This all leads to a culturally competent business and marketing practice.

>> Looking to work with a multicultural and multilingual marketing team that is mindful of cultural competence and liberatory marketing practices? Schedule a call to see how we can create culturally competent marketing materials together.

>> Want to dive into creating a culturally competent brand message as the basis of all your communications strategies? Download our Culturally Competent Brand Message Checklist as a starting point to add cultural competence to your marketing.

You’ll get prompts to review your brand/business culture, that of your clients, and how to synthesize the two in language that is accessible and inclusive for your community. 

If you liked this, you might also enjoy…
Femvertising: How Marketing Can Uphold the Gender Binary
Greenwashing: When Cultural Incompetence Takes Over Marketing

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