How to arrive fashionably late

A recent study considers how latecomers to an international market can thrive. What are the trump cards held by emerging multinationals?

The advantages of being the first to market have long been clear, but never more so than now, as Internet businesses scramble to establish themselves in the face of looming competition.

It’s all well and good if your company is the first to move. However, those with a viable business proposition but which cannot claim that advantage are obliged to seek ways in which they can redress the balance.

This subject is dealt with by consultants Christopher Bartlett and Sumantra Ghoshal in the March-April issue of Harvard Business Review. In their article “Going global: lessons from late movers”, Bartlett and Ghoshal describe a survey of ten emerging multinationals from countries such as Brazil and the Philippines, which have so far produced few internationally successful companies or brands.

Making a late move, the authors conclude, can be an advantage in that it allows emerging multinationals either to benchmark established global players and manoeuvre around them, or to use their newcomer status to challenge the rules of the game. In either case, the authors say, it is crucial to recognise that the global market is information-based and knowledge-intensive. To survive in it – and to move up the value curve – one must know how to learn.

This is true, but it is also essential to create the conditions in which learning can take place.

As Jean-Claude Usunier points out in his book Marketing Across Cultures, a key requirement in communicating successfully in new environments is a willingness and ability to “unlearn”, to reconsider the parameters within which you are used to communicating, to appreciate and understand the characteristics of the market you wish to enter. As these parameters are typically cultural and ingrained, the process is not likely to be easy or immediate.

One could argue that companies from countries which have not typically been first movers in the international arena enjoy a number of advantages which they might now employ to explore success.

First, technology is a great leveller. The Spanish clothing chains Zara and Mango, for example, are expanding rapidly based on a focused, efficient business model making full use of up-to-the-minute technology. Second, such companies may simply have less to “unlearn”, and therefore may be better able to take on established competitors, as Bartlett and Ghoshal suggest. Finally, their more modest position on the world stage may give them a greater propensity to learn, rather than preach.

Whether it is an “early” or a “late” mover, any company seeking to develop in an international context must be prepared to invest time and effort in appreciating cultural differences, to “unlearn” much of what it has previously accepted as “the truth”. Only then will it be in a position to learn, and profit, from its experience.

John Shannon is president of Grey International.

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