Beware the culture gap on global growth trail

Getting an international promotion and a role in a new country will be the making of your career, say global marketers. But how will you settle into your new culture fast enough to be a success?

Click here to read about two marketers who have swapped Britain for Asia
Click here to read Cristina Diezhandino, Diageo regional marketing and innovation director for Africa, give her take on African business culture
Click here to read about how recognising cultural differences that might seem small can make a big difference in Europe
Click here to read some insights on working with colleagues in America

In a digital world where consumers and corporations are less divided by geographical borders and more and more brands are launching into emerging markets, it’s more than likely that at some point in your career you will be required to go and manage your brand in a totally different region of the world. As a result, the marketing community needs to become “cross-culturally” aware, according to consultants such as Allyson Stewart-Allen, director and founder of cross-cultural specialists International Marketing Partners.

Stewart-Allen goes as far as to say that cultural awareness and cultural ignorance can “make the difference between a successful international deal and an apologetic withdrawal”. Assuming that what worked in your home country will work in your new market not only puts an individual campaign or product at stake, but a marketer’s reputation and career.

She even claims that if senior executives such as BP’s ex-chief executive Tony Hayward or Toyota president Akio Toyoda had done cross-cultural preparation before trying to right their companies’ wrongs before a global audience in the way that seemed natural to them, they may have been able to protect their brand equity from damage.

Hayward failed to recognise the US demand for a positive and open attitude towards crisis management when communicating with the American public about how BP would rectify the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, which saw about £50bn wiped from his company’s stock market value.

And as for Toyota, the company’s initial reserved, typically Japanese approach of saying very little about the massive product recalls that were happening was seen by some Western markets as being inactive or even incompetent.

“These are two executives who didn’t read the cultural climate properly,” says Stewart-Allen. “Doing something that is in sync with a particular cultural climate is really important.”

A lack of cultural knowledge can cost a brand dearly. If a business executive makes a serious blunder in an overseas market as a result of not knowing how that business culture works, future working relationships will be hindered, says Stewart-Allen. “The more you study how people work, how they use your products and services in different places, the better. When you work on incorrect assumptions, you make bad decisions that you sometimes can’t recover from. Studying in advance is like an insurance policy, and the return on investment is high because you hit the ground running.”

Every time I think I have my head around the business culture, I learn something new

James Thompson, Diageo

Diageo’s chief marketing officer for Asia Pacific, James Thompson, a UK expatriate who has been based in Singapore since 2007, agrees (see Spotlight on Asia, below). “If you get [working relationships] wrong, if you haven’t shown respect in a particular kind of way, people won’t just think you’ve made a mistake, they will think that you are being very rude,” he says. “And that makes it much harder for them to work with you.”

Cultural awareness comes not from simply knowing what a particular nationality likes to eat or whether they take a siesta, but from understanding behavioural nuances and how these influence business. Stewart-Allen says brands should look at how each culture values marketing, whether it favours the workings of an individual or a group and how likely that culture is to take risks. It is also important to consider whether business is more relationship-based or task-focused, and whether discussions are more likely to be implicit or explicit.

“In the UK, and more so in the US, we reinforce the performance of the individual over the team,” she explains. “But in other parts of the world, such as Asia, the team is everything and no one wants to stand out. You couldn’t just give your agency account director a big high-five when a campaign goes out because that person would be profoundly embarrassed if you complimented only them.”

Business in other parts of the world is conducted at a slower pace than executives in the West might be used to, says Stewart-Allen. “You should not raise the subject of business until, say, the fifth meeting in Japan. This contrasts with the way we do business in the UK, where we think we get off the plane in Tokyo, go to the city centre, sit down with a guy to tell him what we want and he signs the contract.”

Japanese executives want to take time to consider a business proposal, and the nature of the person proposing it, she says. “You would need to wait in silence while they chew over your idea. They are trying to express that your idea deserves consideration, so being comfortable with a silence is an important thing.”

Independent cross-cultural consultant Daniela Derbyshire says that greater international awareness can help in giving or receiving pitches, or ensuring that events run smoothly.

Derbyshire’s consultation method offers “cross-cultural profiling”, which she likens to psychometric testing. It classes different types of culture as “linear”, “multi-active” or “reactive”, and also assesses the person in this way.

“What this does is see what a person has in common with a particular culture in terms of their personal communication style and highlight the areas that they need to work on and learn more about both in face to face encounters and in team situations,” she explains.

Companies such as Diageo and Reckitt Benckiser have long recognised the need for their executives to be internationally aware, taking this philosophy into their talent development strategy. It is essential for marketers to learn about, and work in, different cultures to advance their careers. Reckitt Benckiser’s UK human resources director, Sara Holton, says a key part of the company’s strategy is having global managers who are fit to manage different markets.

This begins at the recruitment stage, with Holton on the lookout for people who are already internationally minded. For example, RB’s graduate scheme focuses on universities with a high percentage of international students.

“When people join RB, they know that to progress to a very senior level they are going to have to move countries at some point,” Holton points out. “For example, our UK general manager is Italian, who has previously worked in Brazil and a number of other countries. Our marketing director is German, and has previously worked for RB in India.”

The company provides support for employees moving to a new territory, from a pre-move “look-see” visit and appropriate local schooling for children to training sessions. Holton stresses this is best done once the employee has made the move because they are likely to absorb more and put into practice what they have learned.

“The aim is to get people up to speed and settled as quickly as possible, so they can focus on managing the business,” she says. “For someone to do business and make an elementary mistake because they aren’t aware of cultural differences would not be good for our company.”

For Will Harris, Nokia’s marketing director for South East Asia and the Pacific (see Spotlight on Asia, below), this kind of preparation is key. He discovered through his research on the region that the distribution of printed maps in Indonesia was illegal until about 15 years ago. “If you’re going to try and sell a tool such as Nokia Maps, you need to know that some people may well have not even seen a printed map,” he says.

Meanwhile, Nicole McDonnell, marketing director for children’s food brand Ella’s Kitchen, explains that when the company was expanding into Scandinavia she learned that children in Sweden receive a state-funded hot lunch until they are seven years old, negating the need for a packed lunch. In the UK, the under-sevens are a core market for the brand because a large proportion of children take a packed lunch to school, so such an insight is crucial when propositioning its products in new territories.

Consultancies will obviously insist that the training they offer is crucial. But marketers such as Diageo’s Thompson and Nokia’s Harris say that building relationships with people on the ground to aid understanding is equally important. “It’s not always about being the expert on a culture, it’s about having the sensitivity and willingness to take an extra step,” says Thompson.

Harris adds: “I have 14 different nationalities reporting to me. What kind of consultancy could give me coaching on them all? Sometimes you have to take away the concept of nationality and think of them as individual people, noting that a particular colleague doesn’t like confrontation, but another one is happy to be challenged.”

Working abroad gives marketers a distinct advantage, says Thompson. “The experiences that people like me have had give you more insight when planning global campaigns. We understand what the best touchpoints are and our marketing is better as a result.”

Spotlight on Asia

James Thompson, Diageo chief marketing officer, Asia Pacific

I have been in Singapore since January 2007 as regional CMO. Every time I think I have my head around the business culture, I learn something new. In some ways this is quite humbling because you can’t just learn a culture in a couple of years, let alone a series of cultures, such as Asia Pacific. You have India, Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, China – even China versus Taiwan is different. The skill is not to be the best at knowing the cultures but developing a radar where you begin to learn when you are not doing something right.

It’s the ability to build relationships that start from listening as opposed to telling. In parts of Asia I have left meetings thinking that there is agreement on what we are doing, and people are actually just being polite. And if I had left it at that, I would have gone away thinking we were moving in a particular direction. So you have to be aware that you have to open up conversations and give people a chance to disagree in a way that makes them feel comfortable.

We were discussing with some of our Thai leadership team how we wanted a business culture where people could be held to account for what they were doing. And one of them said, “In Thailand, we don’t hold each other to account.” It turned out that phrase had a particularly aggressive feel, so when I put it in a different way and explored the concept further, they then agreed that they were able to do this. It’s almost like you have to slow down to move faster.

Will Harris, Nokia marketing director, South East Asia and the Pacific

When you first get off the plane and go to the office it feels the same as working for a big corporate brand in Europe. But then with every week that was going past I realised how little I actually knew, which was really scary.

A lot of it is political – with a small p – and historical. For example, Vietnam doesn’t have the commercial background that Europe does, and has been through massive tumult over the 20th century. It’s been stable for a while but they haven’t got people who have been working in companies for 15 or 20 years like in the UK.

The cultural law in Thailand is fundamentally at odds to the norms in other parts of the world. The people are very polite, but there is an underlying steel that takes you a long time to understand. It’s a very hierarchical country and is more deferential. There is a respect for authority and if you are the director of a company then your word is often law. There is very little chance of people questioning what you do.

Singapore is different again. Singaporeans are very good at working on a task basis and taking instruction, but are less comfortable in a freeform environment. I think this is common to a lot of Chinese Asia.

Out here, you have to avoid putting someone in a position where you are seen to be losing face. And fatalism, an attitude of “what will be, will be”, is predominant and that does translate into business. It’s my responsibility to learn all these cultural reference points because I am a visitor here.

Spotlight on Africa

Cristina Diezhandino, Diageo regional marketing and innovation director for Africa

I am originally from Spain, but I have worked in the UK, the Netherlands, the US and Latin America. I am now responsible for Africa but am based in London.

Because I’ve had many interactions with people from other countries, I have a good knowledge of cultural and geopolitical factors, and understanding of consumers in many parts of the world. But when I came to this job, my knowledge of Africa was shaped a lot by what we see on TV. So when I was offered this job I knew immediately that there was a need for me to learn more.

I travel a lot to the markets I am responsible for, and I have learned that it is crucial to form good relationships with your colleagues early on so you know where they are coming from and the other way around.

In the corporate world there is always a sense of hierarchy, so it is important for me to create closeness. In whichever market I visit, the days become very long and the evenings are very valuable so we can go out and get to know each other informally.

Occasionally I will be with a very senior member of a company. In one East African territory, the chairman of our company’s board is an 80-year-old man who is very well respected and is a member of various other boards of companies in Kenya. In my first meeting with him I quickly noted that people were calling him “Mr Chairman” and not using his first name. You need to keep your eyes and ears open to behave in a way that is appropriate to that place.

Another highlight of working in this region, more than in any other I have worked in, is the commitment corporations have to working with local communities. There is one particular Diageo programme that commits to delivering clean water to 1 million people every year. You can see the differences and possibilities open to big companies operating in Africa.

One thing you see is how women play a big role in these societies. A lot of our customers in Nigeria are big wholesalers that are run by women. You are treated with the highest courtesy when you go to see them; there is always a welcoming drink or lunch. There is a high degree of charm, which is relatively formal but very warm, which is not something I think you would see in the US.

There are quite a few local women in senior roles – the marketing directors for Ghana, Cameroon and Uganda are all women. They are highly educated, and have spent some of their professional lives abroad.

They are very committed to their career and willing to do things that I don’t think you would see in Europe. One marketing director’s husband and two children are based in London but she is willing to spend a lot of time away from them while she is running this market.

Spotlight on Europe

While in the UK we might be geographically closer to our French or Italian colleagues than those in Asia, there can still be vast differences between the cultures.

London-based fashion brand Traffic People attributes its international growth to its careful selection of local distributors in each of its foreign markets. And while director Mark Readman claims that the brand’s British identity is its unique selling point and is where its desirability abroad comes from, he and his team have learned to adapt their ways of working to meet the expectations of their international colleagues.

“The Germans are very organised and want to see things well ahead of time, so we will send orders to them before other countries. Our German distributor wants to see the collection before we even show it at the trade show because they want to give their feedback. I don’t think the Spanish would even dream of doing that, as they are much more relaxed,” he explains.

“We’re a relatively small company so we are flexible and, within reason, we work how people want us to. And as the company evolves and grows you get used to how you need to operate to accommodate customers from different countries.”

Scandinavia may only be a short flight from the UK, but significant lifestyle differences must be considered when doing business there. Ella’s Kitchen marketing director Nicole McDonnell explains: “One of the things we found quite hard to deal with when we were trying to develop a project for this area is that they take a month off in the summer. From a business point of view, that means we have to plan further ahead, which we didn’t necessarily do in the first year because this came as a surprise.”

Spanish-born Cristina Diezhandino from Diageo learned to appreciate the Dutch style of doing business while she was based in Amsterdam. “My colleagues in the Netherlands were very straight talking, which to some could seem abrupt and inappropriate to an outsider,” she says.

Spotlight on America

International Marketing Partners director Allyson Stewart-Allen’s 2001 book Working with Americans highlights, among other things, that even though British and American culture is linked through history and language, key differences in approaches to business are worth understanding. She also revealed in her recent session with the Marketing Week-sponsored Marketing Academy that Americans put less importance on relationships but are more task-focused, and want to see numbers-based results and insights over qualitative commentary.

For Nicole McDonnell, marketing director of children’s food brand Ella’s Kitchen, cultural differences in her team’s personality in the US has been very obvious and unexpected. She gives the example of company job titles – Nicole’s business card says “head of making friends”, and the company managing director is Ella’s dad, and his job title is simply that. McDonnell feels this adds to the brand identity, but it has not gone down well with her colleagues on the other side of the Atlantic.

 “In the States, it’s all about being the CEO or the vice-president. I would like them to use the job titles we use because they epitomise what the brand is about, but in the US they feel it doesn’t give them enough credibility in their market,” she explains. “I appreciate the titles we like to use might not give the right understanding of how senior somebody is, so getting the right balance on this is something we are in discussions about.”

Diageo’s Cristina Diezhandino, now regional marketing and innovation director for Africa, also discovered some key differences when she embarked on her first role in the US about 15 years ago. First, that the customary greeting of kissing a business colleague in Spain was not appropriate in the US. Second, that meeting formats were a lot stricter than what she was used to.

“Meetings had a set beginning and end, stated in advance, with specific agendas and an outcome to be achieved in that time. What surprised me was that people would simply stand up at the end of the period of time, say goodbye and leave.

“I now regard that as very normal, but when I first experienced it I thought it was not a polite way to end things. Then I realised that it is equally impolite to take up more of people’s time than necessary when they are very busy.”

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