ULG’s Language Solutions Blog

The Iceberg Model, Localization and Cultural Context

Posted by Andrew Hitchcock on February 24, 2017

Crossing cultural gaps is a determining factor in any global marketing plan. A comprehensive understanding of people and places around the world has to guide the development of any international marketing or localization strategy.

But can you develop a full understanding of a concept as complex and nebulous as culture? What exactly is a culture made of and how can outsiders learn it effectively?


The premise of the Iceberg Model is a metaphor of an actual iceberg—we can only observe 10% of the actual iceberg, and the rest is hidden beneath the surface of the water. In the same way, when observing a culture, 90% of that culture is hidden from casual observation, and we can only see the basic characteristics of the culture.

The Iceberg Model breaks down all aspects of a culture into three categories, each one diving deeper into the cultural “iceberg.” A combination of these three types of characteristics make up every culture around the world.


These characteristics can be divided into three levels, the first being Surface, which includes all the easily observable characteristics of a culture. Characteristics of the Surface level could include:

  • Language
  • Currency
  • Art Style
  • Cooking
  • Music
  • Holidays
  • Fashion
  • Literature
  • Sports
  • Religion



The second level in the Iceberg Model is hidden underneath these surface characteristics; they’re called Unspoken Rules. Unspoken rules take more time for an outsider to understand. These characteristics include:

  • Business Etiquette
  • Social Etiquette
  • Modesty
  • Symbolism of objects, colors, and individuals



The final level of characteristics are Unconscious Rules. These are the most difficult characteristics to learn and navigate around. Because they’re rooted so deeply within a culture, it’s difficult even for those within a given culture to articulate or even notice these particular aspects. And yet Unconscious Rules can still be the most critical for outsiders to know and understand. Examples of Unconscious Rules are:

  • Verbal and non-verbal communication
  • Sense of time
  • Physical Distances
  • Gender
  • High context vs. low context
  • Concept of death
  • Age
  • Class
  • Physical Space
  • Thoughts on what makes good leadership
  • Concern about the present, or the future
  • Emotional responses
  • Concepts of right or wrong, and good or bad



A lack of understanding of Unspoken or Unconscious Rules can create problems on a personal or professional level.

In the 1950s, Pepsi decided to change the color of their PepsiCola vending machines in Southeast Asia from a dark blue to an icy, light blue.

Unfortunately for Pepsi, light blue was associated with death and sorrow in that area of Asia. As a result, Pepsi’s market shares in that region fell significantly. Pepsi’s failed to research an unspoken rule in symbolism, and the region’s response was due to both an unspoken rule about symbolism and an unconscious rule about death.

We can learn a lot from Pepsi’s mistake, along with the many mistakes companies have made while localizing products.

The Iceberg Model provides a valuable method of understanding the core values and characteristics of a country’s culture. By taking their time, a company can be sure that their localization efforts will produce positive results.

Topics: Global Marketing, Localization, Strategy