When I went to school for international studies, my professors never talked about how business teams functioned across global markets. It was simply a matter of mastering linguistics. However, the reality is that cultural differences can create business challenges that get in the way of doing great work.
At the request of Felicity Carter, editor-in-chief of Meininger’s Wine Business International, I spoke on a panel called “Speaking Globally: Creating influence and negotiating deals in world markets” at Wine Vision, an annual conference that seeks to set the global agenda for the wine industry. Ms. Carter, very eloquently, spoke about direct versus indirect cultures, the significance of a strong translation partner, and how humor generally doesn’t translate well.
I drew upon my experience in managing multi-national communications campaigns and how the concept of “glocal” – where global strategy meets local execution – has shaped effective marketing campaigns.
A bit of background: The way we approach marketing has changed significantly in the last ten years. Gone are the days of executing one single program across the world in an imperialistic style. The phrase “glocalization,” or, in short, “glocal,” was coined in the 1980s. Very broadly, it’s the idea of infusing a very high-level, strategic approach with local or regionally relevant themes.
It has been realized through product offerings with companies like McDonald’s at the forefront of this, adapting its core offering, the iconic hamburger, to incorporate regional culinary preferences to stay relevant and fuel growth.
Glocalization plays out in communications, in how products are marketed – Schwepps is a great example. In Western cultures, their products, like tonic water or ginger ale, are marketed as part of a cocktail occasion, whereas in Asia, a more health-conscious culture, it’s positioned as a Vitamin C-fortified product.
However, this is all consumer-facing and how marketing as a discipline is evolving. As I was researching this talk about best practices in effective international business, what I didn’t find is how to build and work with teams across different cultures. So many marketing and communications campaigns fail, or aren’t as successful as they could be, because they don’t look at how teams collaborate internationally.
Because they didn’t teach this in school, I was left to bumble through learning on my own as a 20-something tasked with helping build a complex, multi-matrixed, multi-national global communications team.
A lot of what you will read below may seem quite basic. But the older I get, the more I realize that simplicity and focus are the hardest things to achieve – perhaps because it boils down to fundamental tenants of hard work and accountability.
What I have found is that success is defined by two factors: consistency and collaboration. What do I mean by this?
Whatever the approach, process or systems for managing global brands, the underlying principle has to be establishing, building and maintaining consistency in the process and message. Do what you say, say what you do.
Being in a global role inevitably means you will be working with colleagues around the globe; most of whom will be sitting thousands of miles away from you. It’s easy to feel disconnected. And, if you are disconnected, so is the work. It’s imperative that the team is viewed as that – a group of people working toward common goals.
So how do you do that?
Everyone loves a top five list. So here’s mine. Again, it’s not rocket science, but it’s easy to get dragged down the rabbit hole just trying to get things done, and fail to slow down to do these things.
- Set yourself up for success
Structure teams with clear roles and responsibilities. Brands are successful when there is someone responsible for ownership of brand communications at a global level, a brand marshal that guides and counsels the brand managers at a regional level and who feeds information from the ground upwards to shape global strategy. This ensures that global, regional and local marketing functions are seamlessly integrated in an organization. Most companies have an excessive number of individuals responsible and involved, thinking it will motivate and inspire ownership. Instead, there aren’t distinct demarcations between roles and responsibilities and frustrations arise.
- Assume good intentions
When confronted with an obstacle or challenge, often our immediate response to conflict or challenge is to get defensive. We think that someone is working against us, trying to undercut our efforts, overcomplicate matters or insert their own agenda. But, if we go back to the idea of being collaborative, and reinforcing that through our own actions, we navigate from a position of positivity and strength.
- Be flexible and adaptable
One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen made, and made myself, revolves around control and rigidity. Like many things in life, balance is crucial. The goal should be not to run a brand police state but to maintain brand’s core values and value proposition and balance that with freedom to adapt executions to leverage local growth opportunities. Even better – incorporate those new thoughts and ideas into your global approach.
Part of flexibility also revolves around realistic timeline expectations. To corral global teams takes time, and when customizing and adapting it takes much longer than working uni-lingually.
- Encourage and foster dual communication flow
Another missed opportunity I’ve seen is when companies hire highly intelligent, competent local talent but then treat them as an executional arm rather than a strategic partner. Smart brands put systems in place to ensure local ideas are captured and disseminated (horizontally and vertically) frequently. Driving all content from the top creates a bottleneck. This can be avoided by seeking feedback from teams early and frequently.
On the flip side, I’ve seen agencies get hired, briefed and then expected to operate in a black hole. Over-communication from brand owners to their local teams is critical for teams to adapt to evolving strategies, markets and incorporate critical insights into their plans and activations.
- Technology is your frenemy
Back in the day, people traveled for important business meetings and put a lot of prep work and forethought into sessions. Technology has accelerated the pace of business and has made us lazy in our communications. Many misunderstandings taking place via email, where tone and style don’t always translate and people miss out on the non-verbal cues, which are critical understanding tools. In-person collaboration still matters, particularly to those cultures where relationships and personal trust matter to getting the most out of teams.
Even the best, most strategic marketing programs don’t achieve their full potential because cultural dynamics can get in the way of success. However, with most things, awareness and recognition are the first steps toward building successful teams and programs.