The Long and the Short of It maps exactly onto the challenges of global marketing

The boundaries between marketing teams’ responsibilities become clearer if you simply make long-term brand strategy a global job and short-term, targeted product activations a local one.

“Why won’t the fucking Germans do what they’re told?” It was a phrase I heard time and time again in my early consulting career. It wasn’t always the Germans. Sometimes it was the difficult Brazilians or the intransigent Swedes. More than once it was the respectfully defiant Japanese.

The country always varied, but the complaint always came from the same location: global head office. I would sit across a desk from a senior international marketer who was in charge of brand strategy for a specific company or product or launch. And despite all their concerted efforts and months of hard work, one or more of the countries that reported to them would not follow the plan. “Why,” the senior marketer would ask me, “don’t they use our positioning/assets/brochure/stuff?”

And I would blink and be unable to offer any explanation because at this point I was only halfway experienced in multinational brand building.

I’d joined London Business School as a professor at the very back end of the 20th century and immediately created a new course called ‘Brand Management’. Because I was in London and because there weren’t that many branding specialists back then – at least not as many as there are today – I had my pick of some very big corporate clients. Because it was London, I was invariably working for the global head of branding.

‘Bothism’ is the cure for marketers’ fascination with pointless conflict

Many of these marketers were based in the city itself. But London was also a short skip to Zug, Paris, New York and all the other places where big multinationals headquarter. I spent a happy, busy seven years working for these global marketers and feeling their pain when the Germans, Brazilians or some other far-flung marketing team zigged away from the global zag.

Then, because of unexpected events at The Windsor Castle in NW1, I emigrated to Australia. My interest and expertise in branding remained, but I was suddenly catapulted to the other end of the org chart.

London had conferred access to the giant, rarefied world of global HQ. My new life shifted to Sydney, Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai. These were equally exciting places but suddenly the person I worked for was not the ultimate brand strategist; they now reported up to them back in London or Chicago. I had become a ‘country marketer’. I was seeing the matrix from the other side.

Tension between teams

A word on this for those who have never worked in a multinational. Through a combination of logic and naïveté you might expect that the global marketing team and all the country marketing teams would work together in one big, coordinated matrix of efficiency and impact. Ha! Nothing would be further from the truth. The global team hate the country teams because they do not do what they are supposed to do. The country teams hate the global team because they are inexperienced in the ways of the market and do not know the specificities of the particular challenges that the country team faces.

And both sides of the matrix have a valid point. The global team do not actually manage any country. They have no direct revenue stream. If the countries ignore their bold new brand strategy or refuse to run their slinky new global ad campaign, they have no control or impact over anything. They are literally pointless. And more often than not the local strategy and campaigns that the country team and their parochial agency come up with are very, very poor.

But the country teams aren’t completely full of shit either. Global marketing functions are invariably stocked with perky, inexperienced MBA students whose theoretical reach extends significantly further than their practical grasp. It can be very hard to put any faith in a global marketing plan when it is delivered by someone 15 years younger than you, who has never visited your country and who does not even know the name of the local competitor, never mind how to compete with them.

While global consistency has its advantages, when you are positioning you worry about customers, competitors and the company’s product. Only one of those three things is the same from country to country, and that means local marketing teams can and should demand variation from the top down assertion of global consistency. I’ve only ever heard a Japanese marketer say “fuck that” once. It was after a two-hour video call with a new American global marketing head who refused to ever come to Tokyo but was steadfast that he knew exactly what the team needed to do to grow sales.

As I got older and fatter and my air miles ticked toward eight digits, I spotted a couple of ways to make this unworkable matrix work a bit better. First, and most importantly, never put anyone into a global or international marketing role until they have (successfully) served a few years at the country coal face. It was immediately apparent which global marketers had country experience because they knew how to handle themselves with country teams. They had both the perceived and actual skills to guide countries, and it showed.

Second, global marketers have to get on a plane. At the moment this advice is moot, but as international travel reopens, Covid cannot become an excuse for international ignorance. You want to be a global marketer? Get your ass out of Chicago. Learn the limitations of Zoom and Teams. Make the effort to visit your team in their market. On their terms. And when you get there, shut the fuck up and listen. Do some site tours. Talk to some key clients. Listen some more.

I worked with a ton of British and American global marketers whose idea of a country visit was an overnight flight, a two-hour PowerPoint instruction session telling the country what to do, lunch with the GM of the country, car to airport, wheels up by 6pm. This makes the situation worse, not better.

In the dynamics of global marketing, getting horrendously shitfaced with the local team in a karaoke bar on the wrong side of town earns you about four hundred more points than a Harvard MBA. Especially when, just before 2am, the local head of marketing turns to you and, for 90 tantalising seconds, explains what’s really going on before bounding up onto the stage to sing Stand By Your Man.

Long and short, global and local

And now I am delighted to report a third equally important insight that can help make the marketing matrix work a little better. My advice is to first learn The Long and the Short of It, and then use it to define rules and responsibilities. Let me, for the 10th time in Marketing Week, explain the theory of long and short (skip ahead if you’ve seen this before). Then let me explain the new way to use it.

So, Uncle Pete and Uncle Les studied a shit ton of companies that grew. They observed two trajectories to growth – a short one of immediate activation and a longer one taking several years of brand building. The most important word in The Long and the Short of It is ‘and’. You need both long-term brand building to set up growth, and short-term activation to convert it and channel it into money. Pete and Les even go so far as to suggest the right mix of these two components to ensure making the most money – 60% long and 40% short. Though this varies depending on the business you are in.

A bunch of ‘strategists’ have taken exception to the theory of the long and the short of it for inane reasons like “they only studied big, successful companies”, or it’s too “binary and simplistic”. Ignore these people – they are as overcomplicated as they are inexperienced. The Long and the Short of It is a brilliant, evidence-based, stupendously simple way to get companies to understand and then execute marketing in a better way.

Let’s allow the global teams to take the 60% and spend it on multiyear, emotional, mass brand building. And let’s spread the remaining 40% of the budget across the country teams.

But there is a further application of The Long and the Short of It for multinational marketers that I want to make you aware of. If we think of ‘the long of it’ we encounter a focus on sophisticated mass marketing. On the need for a clear, emotional position for the brand. For distinctive assets. For a long-term, multiyear approach to brand building, and more complex metrics to assess progress and return on investment. That sounds very much like the work of the global marketing team in pretty much every organisation I have ever worked for.

Now look at ‘the short of it’. It is more tactical. It is based on targeting specific segments for immediate conversion and sales. There are multiple campaigns running. It has a more simple ROI calculation. And it is usually focused on products and propositions that make specific practical benefits apparent to a target customer and then ask for a sale. That too sounds familiar. It sounds a lot like the challenge of running country marketing for a big multinational.

Dividing responsibilities

So why not charge the global marketing team with the challenges of the long of it? And empower the local country teams to take on the short? And while we are at it, let’s use the proportional levels of investment that The Long and the Short of It recommends as a crude rubric for how we allocate and spend marketing budgets. In FMCG, for example, let’s allow the global teams to take the 60% and spend it on multiyear, emotional, mass brand building. And let’s spread the remaining 40% of the budget across the country teams for targeted product activations.

And when you look at things this way you also see why the global marketing matrix breaks down: because global marketers overstep the mark into activation or country teams swim too far upstream and try to do the long of it.

There is – for example – nothing more stupid than global market segmentation. I have seen dozens on my travels and they play out the same, sad way each time. A global marketer spends a shedload of money with a large research firm to do some behavioural segmentation. They create four or five customer archetypes based on global data and build beautiful pictures of the different segments and how each country should target them. Then the global marketer sends out a two-hundred page PowerPoint deck with the new global segmentation and tells the countries to use it, for everything.

A country marketer wades eight pages into the deck, cannot work out which of these archetypes applies to their customers or how to identify them. They give up and target everything with a pulse or use account-based management (which is pretty much the same thing).

The reason for this recurring disaster story is simple. Segmentation is part of the local market challenge. It should be done locally on local markets as part of the short of it. Global marketing teams should focus on the brand and the long-term strategy for its success. Local marketing teams should let them do this and follow their lead, busying themselves with local target segments, product positioning and sales.

The long and the short means more than just long and short. It means brand and product. It means TOFU and BOFU. It means brand tracking and ROI. It means mass and targeted. And it could mean global and local marketing teams too.

Mark Ritson teaches The Long and the Short Of It on the Mini MBA in Brand Management starting 21 September – places still available.