Marketing overseas: Understand your audience

A global brand is by definition: Marketing Overseas

By Tom Dougherty

Marketing overseasEarly in my career, I was transported from the familiar haunts of the United States to begin a long stent in the Middle East, marketing some of the world’s most famous brands to those I didn’t understand very well. Culturally, the world of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, Kuwait and the rest of the markets in the Arabian Peninsulas could not have been more of a culture shock. I literally woke up in a world with different core beliefs, different product usage and different habits. My job was to sell them disposable diapers, laundry soap, automobiles, skin moisturizer and even fabric softener.

I learned very quickly that if I confused myself with the target audience my marketing strategies would fail. I had to build a different internal model.

This is the conundrum for anyone marketing overseas, especially when those countries have vastly different cultures than our own. I have led branding efforts in Europe, China, Japan and, of course, the Middle East, and the ways to effectively do it is the same: Recognize the differences, ask the right questions and step outside yourself.

Then take action.

Let me explain. You might think marketing the laundry detergent Cheer would be a no-brainer to a culture that values absolute hygiene. But, when listening to the culture (in our case, we did in-home interviews), we found that the brand promise of Cheer (brighter colors) was actually a negative because the men and women in Saudi Arabia wore only white or black clothes in public.

We focused on Arial detergent instead.

Marketing overseasI was also part of the brand team that marketed Toyota to the Middle East and, based on the knowledge that black cars would bake in 115-degree heat, we sold them white Toyotas almost exclusively. We also learned that the father’s mother in any family is held with great esteem – meaning, no mother-in-law jokes.

These are the things you must learn to market overseas. Each culture has its own meanings and values. If you don’t learn them, you can’t market effectively in those markets, even as the world becomes a smaller place. We might think American culture dominates the world and, in some cases, it does. But that doesn’t mean what’s most important is the same as it is in the States. Discovering what is most emotionally important is an imperative.

If you get that right, you will make inroads into market share and, most importantly, you will be preferred.

But let’s back up. To truly get at the root of marketing in foreign lands, you must first understand what most brands get wrong. Brand is not about what you offer or even your advantages over the competition. It does not come from the point of view of the company or brand. It comes from the point of view of the potential customer.

You’d be surprised how many companies get that wrong. Banks, for example, talk about good customer service, that “we care” and helping you with your future. Doesn’t every bank do those things? It’s one of the main reasons why few actually switch banks (about 6-7% per year) because consumers understand there is little difference between banks while not being emotionally invested in their own bank.

All banks do is talk about themselves.

This is important in marketing overseas. If you talk about yourself, reflect your homegrown emotional values, what you offer and who you are, you will be ignored. You will look like an American brand that doesn’t understand or value the uniqueness of the foreign target market. Soon, you start selling black and blue cars in desert heat because you have many colors in your inventory.

Marketing overseasTherefore, acknowledge that one of the biggest traps in developing a marketing strategy designed to change current behavior is to confuse the target market and its emotional values with your own. This is doubly true when marketing overseas.

Sometimes, we are good representatives of the target audience but most often we are not. Sneak inside a marketing meeting and you will hear, if it is a no-holes-barred debate, someone saying, “You are confusing yourself with the target audience.” If there is a modicum of truth in the accusation, the debate for a more effective position develops and advantageous options are discussed.

If we are being completely truthful, we must admit that marketers start with personal experience and begin the trek to great marketing by examining their own beliefs and habits.

Bad marketing stops here. Great marketing springs from it.

The hard part is in translating those ideas to a different culture. What you discover is not that you don’t possess the latent knowledge of the culture (or the politics) you wish to influence. But that you must possess a valuable and repeatable scaffolding to understand it.

Socrates_LouvreIt starts with Socrates and the Socratic method. Teach and learn the questions. Never jump directly to the answer. The Greek philosopher believed you achieved true understanding by building on questions that drive deeper into the subject. It is basically a form of anthropology.

For example, start with the system that looks at your own experience, but drill down past your own reasoning to ask yourself what led to that feeling or idea. (Why would Saudi Arabians buy laundry detergent? For cleanliness? Softness? Smell? What are the emotional reasons why they would be important?)

Armed with an important list of questions, take to the field and ask the prospect.  This means doing qualitative research to find what issues are at stake, what triggers are in play and what are the belief systems in that culture that drive decisions.

A word here about belief systems, which must be tested in the research. An understanding of them in the market you are trying to persuade is extremely powerful. If you understand them, then you can not only predict behavior, but also change it.

Let’s use a simple example. If you are a coffee producer, you want consumers to drink your coffee. Why would they drink your coffee? Maybe one of the reasons would be that Saudis see drinking coffee as a social affair. It is at this point where traditional marketing ends. Saying something like, “Enjoy drinking coffee with your friends.”

But if you understand what prompts that desire to be social then you have the makings of a powerful marketing message. Align your brand and marketing message with that. That’s how those messages become emotional.

Nowhere is aligning with belief systems, or precepts, more important than when marketing in a foreign land. If you don’t, you might actually offend the target audience or completely miss the mark.

Marketing overseasIn the qualitative, peel back the layers of the onion and probe as to what questions the targets are asking themselves that led them to the answer. (“I prefer white cars.” Why? “Because they remain cool in the sun by reflecting sunlight.”) This accumulated list of germinal questions has remained with me throughout my career and I ask them in our research to understand perceptions and uncover emotional motivations. The answers are fungible. The questions are not.

Once you have those answers, do quantitative research to find out if they are projectable to the entire target market. Otherwise, you will be left to your own potential misunderstandings.

Also, you must make a careful examination of both your offerings and that of the competition. It has been my experience that companies often delude themselves into thinking they have the best offerings when the competition is equally adept. (See banks.) While what you offer is important, don’t confuse them with the reasons why target audiences choose.

Apple’s iPhones may not actually be the best phone on the market. They lag in certain technologies but Apple doesn’t focus so much on what the phone does. It focuses on simplicity and what the consumer feels when they use an iPhone. (A hint: They feel that they think differently than everybody else.)

If you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to establish marketing efforts in other parts of the globe, you will be forced to get out of your own way and ignore your own emotional compass. You will cultivate the ability to dispassionately understand the target audience beyond the ability of most who are handcuffed to the culture into which they were born.

Knowledge is power.

Marketing overseasIn essence, you can transform yourself into a brand anthropologist. A keen observer of human behavior trying as best you can to influence the native culture you are so privileged to observe.

The major caveats are to understand going in that you do not understand the culture. Go in with no assumptions. Also, make sure your marketing – and even business practices that support those marketing efforts – comes from the point of view of the potential customer, not the company itself.

Meet, observe and listen more than you talk and ask only questions. Never make statements. Your list of questions will grow as long as your accomplishments. Or, you could make assumptions and never learn a thing and find random successes in marketing because of blind luck.

(Read a related article on building a global brand here)