There was a time when toilet rolls were only sold in two-packs in the UK. Italian shoppers, however, were able to pick up four- or eight-roll packs in their stores. Manufacturers wanted to sell the same size in both markets. But the only way to get British shops interested was to introduce larger packs in Ireland, first.
“Then UK retailers cottoned on,” recalls LinkDirect marketing director Edward Fullbrook, a former sales and marketing director at a paper manufacturer. Discovering unexpected barriers to cross-border marketing was typical of his experience and is still a common problem these days.
“Whatever you thought your marketing plan was in the UK, there was a good chance you couldn’t use it in any other country. If you think you can just pick up a campaign and drop it into another market, you will come unstuck,” says Fullbrook.
Globalisation may be a growing economic phenomenon, but cultural uniformity is still a long way off. And with ever more brand owners seeking to centralise their operations and run international campaigns, marketing across borders has probably become more, not less, complex.
One of the first issues to tackle when marketing internationally is how to position the brand. It is not just market share that may differ – a market leader in one country can be a challenger brand in another – but also the status of the product.
“My experience with a company manufacturing ham was that in the Netherlands, ham was seen as upmarket, whereas in France it was a commodity. Trying to roll out a centralised campaign in those circumstances is very difficult,” says Carter Hackman, director of marketing strategy at European marketing agency Framfab.
Cultural differences rapidly make themselves felt. Italian women choose gym clothes that are fashionable, for instance, whereas German women look for performance. An ad featuring nudity is acceptable in France or the Netherlands, but not in the US.
Let the ball do the talking
A few brands are lucky enough to have truly global status that does not vary by market. Framfab created the European website for Nike Football, for instance, which offers the same experience and content to users in each language.
Other global brands have to find ways to exploit their local positioning while developing values that work in every territory. “Land Rover is a famous British brand with a lot of heritage. But it is taking a global positioning. All the work has to fit with that,” says Craik Jones Watson Mitchell Voelkel board director Helen Richards.
Land Rover has created a global marketing unit based at its UK head office. Marketing directors in each local market are involved in the evolution of campaigns through regular conference calls, e-mail and intranet discussions.
Although all the work has to fit the centralised brand proposition, local variants are possible, for instance to reflect different sales volumes. But these differences in market share can also serve to drive centralisation: Richards says her agency is sometimes asked to send its creatively rich direct mail packs for use in markets where low sales volumes would not justify the expense of an equally rich indigenously created campaign.
Centralisation has been a feature of international ad campaigns for many years. Although often easy to spot because of poor dubbing or peculiarly non-specific locations, television ads that work in more than one country have become easier to create as a result of the rise of global media such as MTV or CNN.
“Clients are beginning to look more at centralised direct marketing campaigns that can run across multiple territories. They have been doing that above-the-line for years, but have been put off doing it below-the-line by the complexities of data protection,” says Tullo Marshall Warren client services director Richard Marshall.
Although there is a common European law on data protection, local differences still exist. But clients are not letting this stop them pursuing centralised marketing. “In the past few months, we have had clients asking about pan-European campaigns,” says Marshall. He adds that local cultural differences are often over-stated and can be used as an excuse to defend the interests of local marketing teams.
There are some genuine barriers to the transfer of creative work from one country to another. Occasionally, these are cultural (such as opposing views about nudity in ads), but more often they are legal.
This was the case when American Express wanted to launch its Centurion “black card” in Sweden, the Netherlands and Spain. OgilvyOne had been responsible for launch mailings in other markets, which had achieved high response rates by sending pre-selected targets the new card ready for them to sign and use.
These mailings traded on a mystique that had grown up around the card prior to its launch – once prospects touched the card, few wanted to send it back. European laws forbade this approach, however, leaving the challenge of how to translate a successful technique into locally acceptable executions.
The solution adopted by AmEx was to send European targets a personalised card, encased in a cube of glass. To get a real, usable version, they had to call in and request it, thereby complying with the relevant laws. Response rates were double the level achieved in markets where the card itself had been sent.
Change at Frankfurt
But not all legal obstacles can be overcome through clever adjustment of the creative work. The most notorious obstacle to pan-European marketing is the wide gap between what is permissible as a sales promotion in the UK and what can be offered to consumers in Germany.
“German clients don’t understand the vast discounts you can give in the UK, because they are not allowed in Germany. There is no two-for-one, for instance,” says Fullbrook. Although some European countries, such as France, allow reasonably generous promotions, none have the same latitude as the UK.
The European Commission is looking at ways to harmonise this situation, but is stuck on whether to level up or level down the final law. Fullbrook warns that there is a real danger that the New Zealand model will be adopted.
“In New Zealand, you cannot add the cost of promotions on to the product price. In the UK, if something costs 10p and you want to run a promotion, you can raise the price of the product to 11p. That is illegal there,” he says.
British marketers would find it very stifling to have one of the pillars of marketing regulated in this way. But just as globalisation often results in the replacement of local tea shops by chains of coffee houses, so the cost of being able to run centralised marketing across borders might be the loss of certain techniques. What you gain in markets, you lose in marketing.v