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Is thinking global killing local? Successfully integrating local insights into global strategy

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Gordon HusbandsThe world order is changing once again. Strong brands alone are not enough to conquer new markets. Global competition is hotting up and the battlefield has many fronts. Whether we are thinking and acting locally or globally, our customers are judging us at every point of contact and assessing how much we really value them.

There is a great deal of worthy discourse and debate, both in the business media and in boardrooms, about Product Lifecycle Management (PLM), Supply Chain Management (SCM) and Customer Relationship Management (CRM).

Many global platforms and systems are also being built and rolled out across the globe to support the “Think global, act local” approach so that every territory can get closer to the customer.

But how often is the debate and rollout more about the technology and the internal process rather than the activity that actually engages the real world? There is no point having a global CRM system that simply pumps out communication in English regardless of the mother tongue and culture of the local recipient.

We must accept that, as the desire for globalization drives us out of the monocultural domain (e.g. North America/English) and into a multicultural and international marketing environment, we add a whole new dimension of complexity to the activity of attracting, engaging, satisfying and retaining customers.

Never has it been more important for us to communicate effectively, consistently and accurately with our customers, wherever they are in the buying/relationship cycle, whatever language they speak and whichever communication medium they prefer.

A clear global strategy is fine but it must be flexible enough to respond to local needs and to exploit local opportunity.

21st century marketing issues

The pace of change in the new millennium is faster than ever before and the global corporation is facing a number of new marketing issues that simply did not exist in the 20th century. These include the recent enlargement of the European Union, the rapid growth of the emerging Asian markets as well as the challenge from new regional brands.

Market size and complexity

There is a very large number of viable or potentially viable markets (or locales) to operate in. For example, in the recently restructured Europe, the European Union (EU) and European Free Trade Association (EFTA) now encompass 28 countries, 450 million people and around 32 languages (ranging from Swiss French and Catalan to Maltese and Welsh) with the Eastern Balkan states and Turkey knocking insistently on the door. Each with its own languages, customs, laws and demographics serves to complicate marketing strategy formulation and execution.

To put this into perspective, just consider for a moment the complexities of producing legallycompliant packaging for the 32-language European market. How many box variations are needed to ensure that the differing product availability and specifications, legal requirements andlanguages are catered for in each country or locale1?

Emerging markets

Recently, there has been rapid growth in the size of the emerging markets such as India and China which are beginning to represent huge demand when compared to the highly fragmented European market. For example, Indians bought a total of 208,5342 SUV/MUVs in FY2003-04.

This is a staggering statistic for a country where vehicle per capita ratios are well below the Asian average. Fuelled in part by the accelerating trend for offshoring and outsourcing, a highly affluent professional class has an increasing appetite for quality consumer goods, leisure pursuits and all the supporting paraphernalia of credit cards, investment products and leasing arrangements.

Regional competition

There are increasingly strong new regional competitors who, in some cases, are rapidly emerging into global competitors. For example, the highly admired Nokia, despite the market growing by 34 per cent, has seen a 16.5 per cent fall in market share to the usurpers Samsung (up 16 per cent) and Sony/Ericsson (up 19 per cent). Even the market veteran Motorola is up 12 per cent3. The strength of powerful local brands such as the often-quoted Volvo in Sweden and Danone in France should never be underestimated because they now have the commercial muscle and ambition to take on the big brands far beyond their own back yard. There must be a recognition that the local execution of global communications campaigns will be competing with widely different value propositions and have to be tailored accordingly.

Global responsiveness and cost pressure

There is a need to increase global coverage while responding to significantly increased competition and market complexity. As an illustration, Western PC vendors’ share of the Chinese market had fallen from 50 per cent in 1995 to 20 per cent by 2000. Their lost share had been captured by indigenous Chinese vendors such as Legend, Founder and Great Wall who had seized 46 per cent with the sizable rump being served by other Asian vendors such as Acer and Toshiba. Add to this the arbitrary and endemic application of commodity procurement metrics (e.g. “double-digit cost reduction year-on-year”) and techniques to marketing services that are driving down the overall marketing budget available to a locale and spreading it across an ever wider set of “total customer experience” activities.

Marketers, being reluctant pragmatists, will accept that, just because the number of countries in the EU has doubled or that the automotive market in China is many times bigger than the US, the marketing budgets will not increase by the same proportions. With the increased complexity of the global marketing task, not only must productivity and effectiveness gains be realized to get more from less but marketing activities have to be effectively localized to have any hance of competing with indigenous players.

So what is the reality of these 21st century global market challenges in the delivery of local multicultural communication to our ever more important and demanding customers?

Here are a few points to consider.

Cheap words/expensive messages

When formulating global marketing messages, what is more relevant? Is it the cost or the value of those words? If they fail to communicate a key selling point locally, they have cost a lot and delivered nothing. For example, what do the following phrases really mean?

“Stay sharp”, “Way to go”, and “Capture distance shots using zoom” have all appeared in USoriginated marketing collateral intended for the global market. All are common words that can be found in a pocket dictionary in most languages. None are exotic or complicated in meaning.

However, all of them have a very different meaning when assembled in a specific context such as on the side of a box or carton or on a high-impact advertising billboard.

Does the “sharp” refer to the quality of an image, an ability to cut, a level of intelligence or maybe even a style of dress?

If you want to start a lively debate at your next visit to a bar or coffee shop, ask your immediate group of friends to define what “way to go” actually means and then ask how you would explain it to a Brit, an Italian or a Russian?

You can see where this is going. The phrase is highly subjective and tied to the context but, ultimately, ambiguous and open to interpretation. You are relying on the originator to have a comprehensive understanding of the audience, the context, the medium and the time of delivery.

If we introduce the dimensions of language, culture and local idiom, then the communication task becomes even more complicated. So you want to pay specific attention to who your company is relying on to localize these important global messages and exactly how this is being achieved.

You particularly want to avoid informing an unsuspecting Polish audience that “You desire them carnally” as Jimmy Carter once did in a public address in Poland some years ago.

To the accountant, the words may appear cheap to buy but, if the message is garbled, inaccurate, confusing or insulting, how effective is the whole campaign? What damage will it have on the brand and at what real cost to your market share?

Beautiful design but for whom?

Everyone, their mother and their dog has an opinion on what makes a good advertising concept. Similarly, every advertising agency has a client whose CEO or President insists on appearing in his own commercials or using his mother, partner, and house with predictably sad results.

It is no different with global campaigns, except for the added complexity of not only having the client but also the country VPs of Sales or Marketing voicing an opinion either before or after the execution of the campaign. Given the long list of cultural gaffes that provide endless entertainment on satellite TV, it is obviously better to garner detailed local market input before, rather than after, campaign execution.

Would you buy a fuel-efficient, small and manoeuvrable car designed expressly to cope with Parisian rush hour traffic and tiny parking spaces and then expect to ship it back home to the US to take the family on a camping holiday in Yosemite National Park?

Stupid question? But what about that concept and design so lovingly honed and word-crafted to appeal to the New York businessman of which the advertising agency is so proud? Will it really be just fine and dandy for the conservative Bavarian German or ostentatious New Russian too?

Consider this example. There is an advertisement running on British TV right now featuring the benefits of a large Swiss-owned insurance company. Picture if you will a classic sequence from “The Dambusters”, the famous World War Two movie, with a sweeping aerial shot of green and lush countryside somewhere in Central Europe. It is just before dusk with the obligatory uplifting strains of brass orchestrations on the soundtrack. But then, instead of the anticipated buzzing squadron of RAF Lancaster bombers flying in tight formation, we see a tight squealing squadron of flying pigs!

This has obvious appeal to the Pythonesque humour of the Brits and, needless to say, it works very well on British TV. The metaphor of “flying pigs” is well understood on both sides of the Atlantic. But it is not a concept that readily translates from the English. Pigs have dangerous connotations in some cultures and, clearly, the underlying theme is not very sensitive to Germany.

With the advent of technologies such as MacroMedia’s Flash MX and the increasing use of interactive media to promote the product benefits of sophisticated consumer electronics, provide sales and product training, and offer entertainment on websites such as Disney’s, there is the additional minefield of selecting a culturally suitable voiceover artist. And don’t forget, the Russian or German sound bite may well record three times longer than the English version.

The commissioning marketers and designers of media all need an excellent appreciation of the fact that all languages behave differently from English in terms of alphabet, word order, punctuation and grammar. Just as we take for granted that quality and safety in automobiles and airplanes are designed-in rather than as an afterthought, the same should be true for language and cultural friendliness. Otherwise your flying pigs may come home to roost!

Beware cultural ‘stereo-typos’

It is human nature to make judgements and assessments on the basis of our own personal experiences and acquired urban legends. As we all know, “The Brits walk around with umbrellas and bowler hats in the rain” and “The French all wear stripy shirts, berets and a string of garlic around their neck”. No, we are not parochial enough to believe that these stereotypes still exist, but it is just as easy to make gross assumptions about market conditions, learning styles and adoption of what are sometimes laughingly called ‘international standards'.

Not so long ago, a US-based design agency was convinced that the “letter size” that was peppered throughout a campaign script to promote the launch of a range of printing paper was a very common standard and would be well understood by all - despite the fact that paper production in the whole of Europe and Japan adheres to the ‘ISO A Series’ standard. For example, the A4 paper size is the closest equivalent to US letter size but has dimensions of 297mm x 210mm.

Many Europeans have the reverse problem with A4 when they try to enter the US market with collateral designed in Europe. Woops, the brochure will not fit in a standard US letter size envelope. Sounds trivial? Never happens in your company? When did you last check your literature distribution centres or ask what has been pulped recently?

Sales channel and merchandiser training are critical for the effective and swift introduction of new products to the global market. Face-to-face training across many locales is logistically complicated and, hence, can be very expensive. A solution to this has been to introduce interactive, animated web-based training that can be accessed on-demand at a time and location dictated by the trainee. This technique has obvious and huge advantages over traditional ringbinder, hotel conference room-based approaches.

However, a note of caution, from Robert Aughenbaugh, President of Via Training of Portland, a market leader in online active learning, on managing the rollout of such a global campaign for a range of new generation PDA/Smartphones:

“We had a constant challenge getting engagement for online training in countries with a much stronger tradition of face-to-face training. Countries claimed that online training would not work in their cultures and this was an ongoing battle.”

“Interestingly, there also turned out to be a direct correlation between Internet penetration and rates of utilization of the site. Over the long run, we are trying to find a balance between online and offline training that works most effectively in every culture, and provides integrated content across all forms of training.”

Inflexible global strategies can readily be deflected by entrenched local resistance and a minefield of local market conditions. It is equally easy to misjudge the cultural expectations when developing content, as another testimony from Robert Aughenbaugh demonstrates:

“The last challenge was keeping the focus on sales training rather than technical training. Local partners tend to equate device knowledge with sales ability and resisted all efforts to change this perception. We received constant feedback that the training was not technical enough, despite the fact that training was not intended to be primarily technical. This was a barrier to adoption in some markets, especially the Nordic regions and Germany”.

We can all learn lessons from these examples. Global companies should never assume that their perception of the world is relevant in any market other than their own domestic one. Just as good marketing practice is based on the development of a product or service from the customer’s perspective, global communications strategy should equally be rooted in the local market’s ‘view from here’.

Responding to the ever present cost pressure

Globalization, whichever way you look at it, is not for the faint-hearted and is still more of an art than a science. But there are several strategies for ensuring that the costs of multicultural communication are kept under control and cost savings can be made from project to project.

Wordbank’s business is primarily involved in the internationalization and localization of marketing campaigns. When we looked at the root cause of marketing localization project overruns, both in terms of time and budget over several years and across campaigns involving many different types of delivery media and countries, we identified the following main contributory factors.

Content and design changes mid-localization

Enormous time and effort is expended daily in writing, editing and approving both copy and designs for global campaigns. Ideally, this is synchronized with product introductions to ensure simultaneous launch and execution across the globe.

The sudden addition or revision of a paragraph to the English source may not be a huge inconvenience to the designers of a brochure but, if the collateral is required in 18 languages, it should be fairly obvious that modifying 18 layouts and re-editing and checking 18 languages while maintaining the original tight deadlines is a very significant and potentially costly challenge.

Lack of internationalization

Where layouts and designs, whether destined for the web or for printing, have been planned solely from a North American/British perspective, the result is the same as above – 18 files have to be re-engineered to accommodate the peculiarities of the language. Even then the Chinese may be illegible because the font size has been reduced to 10 to squeeze it into the layout (consider how effective small print is on the back of a bill of sale in terms of communicating product benefits).

Typically, these two items can add anything from 20 to 50 per cent to the direct localization costs of a specific campaign excluding any additional costs for printing, publishing or distribution incurred as a result. So time spent pre-production in thinking local before acting global can have a major impact on preventing costly overruns.

Slipshod English

The seemingly unavoidable spiral of reducing time-to-market and the need to produce everincreasing volumes of content is leading to poorly crafted, inconsistent, ambiguous and generally sloppy English copy. This is prevalent across the whole customer experience continuum: marketing materials, packaging and every kind of web content. This lack of clarity at best slows down and complicates the adaptation to other languages and cultures and, at worst, results in reprints and reworking across huge volumes of content.

The funkiest, sexiest, hippest street English is a nightmare to interpret and localize into a clear and effective message. But worse it also impedes the localization process by tying up marketers’ and product managers’ time explaining exactly what it is they are trying to say and how that motivates their target audience. More importantly, it can result in localized content that only serves to confuse, irritate and annoy a customer, who may have previously had some loyalty to the brand. When automatic publishing tools and translation machines are employed, the problem can escalate by ensuring that poor content is rapidly and efficiently hosed over the maximum international audience.

Think global, act local?

Most global marketers will go along with the received wisdom that centralization, on a regional basis, is critical to get close enough to a macro-market in order to start to understand the ‘local’ challenges of engaging with the customer. With a squeeze on budgets, marketing economies of scale must be derived to make the budget stretch over an increasingly complex set of locales.

It is easy to continue to be totally seduced by the command-and-control centralization of strategy contained with the “Think global, act local” mantra. However, as can be seen from innovative examples such as the Cola Turka launch using Chevy Chase, which dramatically cut swathes into the market share of Coca-Cola and Pepsi in Turkey, and the impact of Samsung with clam shell phones, local market solutions can come out of nowhere and start to “kick butt” with global brands.

Kevin Roberts, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, in an article in the UK Financial Times recently summarised those too closely wedded to this slogan as “The Think Too Big Gang who rollout a global idea and forget to make the most of local insights and the Think Too Small Crowd who prevent big ideas from travelling far or fast enough”. This neatly sums up the two main obstacles to successful globalization and reveals why now may be the time to turn the mantra on its head to think local, act global.

The principles of successful globalization should be fundamentally the same as those for marketing any product or service. Start with an understanding of the customer – wherever he or she is in the world – and what excites, inspires and motivates them. It is only by understanding the customer’s own unique cultural perspective and value system and communicating with them in their own language that global companies can win in the 21st century. As we embark on formulating global strategies that can enhance the local customer experience with a newfound multicultural awareness, we would do well to remember the Asian tiger motto – “It’s not what you know but how fast you can learn”.4


1 A locale is a country/language combination.
2 Johanna Livonen, PriceWaterhouseCoopers
4 Peter J Williamson – Winning in Asia

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