Cross-cultural marketing is one of the most challenging disciplines in business today. Marketing to people in different socio-economic groups is difficult, but once you layer on cultural biases, the challenge increases exponentially.
An example of how something can work well in one country, but not for another, can be taken from a visit I made to the Vava’u Island Group in Tonga. As we stepped off the plane we found a brand new control tower and baggage center, the building of which had been funded by the European Union.
However, we did not go inside. Instead, luggage was delivered by hand at the wooden hut on the other side of the airfield, just as it had been for many years. I am sure the control tower seemed a great investment in Europe, but with only two scheduled flights a day and no one trained to use the equipment, it was completely redundant in Tonga.
A couple of months ago, I came across a collaborative project that seeks to highlight the friction created by cultural differences, and while its focus is on community and foreign aid, I think it holds a lesson for marketers as well.
The Ghana Think Tank seeks to solve local problems in the “developed” world using a network of think tanks in the “developing” world. These think tanks analyze the problems and propose solutions, which are put into action back in the community where the problems originated (irrespective of how practical the ideas might be).
Part public art and community action project, the Ghana Think Tank is the brainchild of Christopher Robbins, whose experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer taught him that developed world advice can often be nonsensical in the context of the developing world.
As an example, when the Ghana Think Tank visited Westport, Connecticut (one of the wealthiest towns in the U.S.), problems stated by residents included pesticide use, barking dogs, lack of diversity, and speeding traffic. The think tank proposed that Westport could solve its problems of lack of diversity, inter-generational mixing, and sense of isolation by having weekly walks to the neighbors. Christopher Robbins reports on the success of this solution as follows:
The Armstrongs volunteered first. They stopped off at a bunch of neighbors they didn’t know, crashed a birthday party, even got brought through one neighbor’s backyard to the river and offered use of their canoes. The youngest son absolutely loved it. He kept saying “this is working! This is really working! We should do this every week.”
In this case, the suggested solution seemed to work, but many do not, instead highlighting the vast cultural differences that still divide us.
In the world of marketing it is often assumed that what worked for a brand in its home country is bound to work elsewhere in the world. Even when a brand is adapted to meet local functional and economic needs, it is tough for people responsible for the brand at the center to suspend their mindset regarding what the brand should stand for, and how best to execute its positioning.
The tension between global and local teams was a theme that ran through all the interviews I conducted for The Global Brand. Two solutions proffered by my interviewees were developing a sense of humility at the center and the use of common metrics. The former allows the center to quickly recognize the power of locally-originated ideas, and the latter allows the center to demonstrate the success of those ideas and encourage others to learn from them.
Do you know of any companies that actively use cross-cultural think tanks to promote best practices? Do you have any examples you can share? Please let me know.