How to Gain Customer Buy-in Across the Globe

9 April 2010 Dr Deborah Swallow

Different markets require different approaches. If companies competing internationally are to meet their commercial objectives, they must move beyond traditional market research and examine cultural codes, asking why it is different people around the world buy and behave as they do, writes Dr Deborah Swallow.

The global marketplace has become a vast, wired network of designers, manufacturers, programmers and sellers who can be anywhere. Consumers and users, however, are always local, and many leading brands have learned to their cost that one-size does not necessarily fit all in international markets. Ultimately, they have failed to understand their foreign customer. As a result, less than half the companies competing in international markets have been successful in meeting their commercial goals.

There are a lot of well-known global brands such as Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Nike and Reebok. However, it does not mean that the people all over the world buying these products share the same values and beliefs. It shows only that some products are universal. Even if you are an iconic brand or sell an aspirational product, you have to understand customers, constituencies and crowds, and how they behave. You have to design appropriate and appealing products just for them.

To do this, you need to decipher the cultural codes at work across the globe. You need to understand why different people around the world buy and behave as they do. You need to understand consumer preferences at a much deeper level than traditional market research unearths. Most importantly, you need to ask the right questions.

Big brands burned

Kellogg's bid for a place at the Indian breakfast table met with disaster as Indians think cold food for breakfast is a shock to the system. Whirlpool took years to recoup its market share after launching a single low-cost washing machine for emerging markets, discovering to its cost that in spite of their attempts at a cultural fit ('delicate wash' was renamed 'sari cycle') the machine shredded saris. Walmart pulled out of Germany after nine years with a loss of around a billion dollars because they had misunderstood Germany's cultural attitudes towards sustainability, quality and their distrust of in-store greeters and packers among many, many other things. 

"Even iconic brands have to understand customers, constituencies and crowds, and how they behave."

These are classic examples of cultural misfits that could easily have been avoided by asking the right questions or being more culturally savvy. But just avoiding these costly faux pas will not ensure success. Finding out what people really feel at a deep level about your product or service will. It's the same as the difference between customer satisfaction and customer loyalty; one is what they say, the other is what they do.

Symbols and codes

A cultural code is the unconscious meaning we apply to any given thing – a car, a face cream, a relationship, even our home – via the culture in which we are raised. Every word, every action, every symbol has a code. The French, for example, believe that cheese is alive; the Americans think of it as dead. This has an important impact on how you pitch your product in those countries.

L'Oreal knows that the Brits and Yanks are uptight about sex and promotes its products through focusing on feeling good about oneself – 'Because you're worth it' – because seduction is seen negatively as manipulation. In Southern Europe beauty advertising can be sensuous and ooze seduction, and can be overtly about capturing your man. In the Nordic countries, it has to reflect a connection with the natural world; in the Arab world, beauty is a reflection of how well a man provides for his wife. This impacts how you should pitch and gain customer buy-in.

Great service is more important to Americans than great quality. For Germans and Japanese it is the reverse. Americans don't put a premium on quality; they just want something that works. So the total quality management initiatives of the 1990s failed to inculcate the American psyche – there was no buy-in at the emotional level to quality and perfection because the emotional connection to functionality and the fact that something works are stronger.

Nouvelle cuisine, the means of experiencing refinement in food, is very French – about pleasure and artistry – but is against the British code for food. We say 'I'm full' at the end of a meal implying we've just refuelled the tank. Alcohol in France is about appreciation and enhancing the taste of food. In Britain it's about having a good time. Its function is to help you let your hair down.

Figuring out the combination

Deciphering cultural codes entails a commitment to spending time discovering the emotional connections people have with 'things'. It's like figuring out the combination that unlocks a safe. It isn't easy, but the treasures you find within make the effort worthwhile. The codes are the keys to unlocking mindsets that allows you to shape your message in way that can be understood effectively across cultures.

"Deciphering cultural codes entails a commitment to spending time discovering the emotional connections people have with 'things'."

This is not about diluting your brand by sending out different messages in different countries. One of the primary lessons of international marketing is that it is essential that a brand maintains a sense of where it comes from when it travels the world. The Mini Cooper delivers a really strong message about its Britishness, but it is pitched as racy in Italy and as fun in Canada. They are subtle differences that mean a lot.

Marketers need to adopt an entirely different approach about their target markets. As the saying goes: 'The map is not the territory.' It's not enough to listen to what people say; that's the map. They need to dig to a deeper level to discover the emotional connections people have about health, home, education, shopping, luxury, perfection, quality, work and money etc; that’s the territory.

Knowing the cultural codes for any culture gives you a new set of glasses to view the landscape; you just need to change the lenses to bring each one into focus. We are all individuals with a personal code, but seeing how we think and behave as a group, as a culture, enables us to navigate the world precisely, communicate across cultures and gain customer buy-in.