Global vs. Local: Lessons From The Past Decade

With the internet, what’s old is new again.

Specifically, the web is reviving a current of thought that blew through advertising and marketing about 10 years ago. What would that be? Well, it’s “pan-European,” or global, advertising.

Back in 1986, when I was a mere pup launching what has become one of the biggest direct marketing agency networks in Europe for McCann-Erickson, pan-European advertising was all the rage. The idea was simple: Consumers in various countries fell into the same demographic and psycho-graphic categories, and cross-border travel was pretty common, thanks to Freddie Laker and high-speed trains.

Therefore, it became essential to use the same imagery, taglines, positioning, product and brand assets across all campaigns in all countries. Economies of scale could be achieved, and global brands built, as campaigns were extended from one country to another.

About six years later, pan-European advertising was completely out of vogue. The focus, once again, was on advertising and marketing to specific nations.

It was surprising at how quickly a great idea became a dumb idea, until you looked at the reasons why pan-European advertising failed. To be fair, it didn’t fail completely, because there were some notable successes.

What it came down to then, just as it does today, is consumer tastes and timing. For international internet marketers today, it’s very important to understand the dynamics of these two things.

Starting with consumer tastes, you really have to start with the product. Some products require very little effort in terms of new product development to be successful in new markets. Others, based on historical experience, are unlikely to succeed without extensive re-jiggering.

A case in point is basic office software — Microsoft’s Word works equally well (or equally badly, if you’re a MS-hater) in all western countries, once its been localized for language characteristics.

Cars, however, are another story, since they are much more “personal” and “life-style” purchases. Consumer tastes in cars vary widely between the US, Germany, Japan, Italy, the UK and India. Achieving economies of scale, either in product development or advertising development, is extremely difficult.

Ford is one of the manufacturers that’s been most successful in using a modular approach to car building. Recognizing there are strong differences in consumer tastes, this approach lets consumers reduce the absolute number of components — and thereby achieve economies of scale — without really affecting the number of options available to customers in each of the 75 different national markets in which Ford sells cars.

In its advertising messages, the modular approach lets them tout safety in Scandinavia, performance in Italy, design in France and handling in Germany. The Ford brand may be global, but the product and advertising is very local. In this way, Fords adapts their manufacturing and marketing to the needs of each market.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is a company like Kellogg, which will spend 20 years creating a market. That’s about how long it has taken Kellogg to introduce breakfast cereal to France, where I can now buy a box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes at the corner grocer — a feat unimaginable when I first lived here and could only find toast, croissants, coffee and a Gauloise for breakfast. Rather than be guided by consumer tastes, Kellogg chose to go with timing, and had pockets deep enough to wait 20 years.

So what’s the point for you, Gentle Reader? Well, I’ll tell you:

  • For internet marketers with international ambitions, it’s essential to find out if your product or service, and your way of doing business, are in synch with consumer tastes. If not, determine if you can afford to wait for your timing to come around.
  • Figure whether your product is aimed at the “innovator” or “early adopter” segment, which is likely to be fairly uniform across countries, and likely to be on the web.
  • Decide to what degree your product falls into the “global” or “local” bins. What I saw 10 years ago was that for “concept” products — like the American Express Gold Card — pan-European advertising was not only a possibility, it was a necessity, in order to build a brand that was recognizable for a premium positioned product.

But attempts to pan-Europeanize food brands, for example, proved to be a dismal failure for the most part. Take a case like Nestl : Out of more than 560 brands, Nestl has 250 brands that are present in only one country and a mere 19 brands in more than half of the countries in which Nestl operates. (The reasons, BTW, have more to do with local tastes than they do with the will of Nestl ‘s brand managers to maintain their fiefdoms. Food is one of the most local things around, which is why Kellogg had to hang in there for 20 years.)

So look carefully at your product or service, and your marketing mix. It’s possible to have a standardized marketing mix. It’s also possible to have some elements that are the same, and others which are changed, from country to country.

The bottom line is this: A thoughtful study of the target countries will help you determine what you can do about local tastes and timing in order to be successful in the international marketspace.

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