Identifying important commonalities and differences

by Nigel Hollis | January 04, 2010
When I think of Africa, I think of a place that's warm and sunny, and so if you're like me, you may find it tough to think about marketing in Africa when much of the Northern Hemisphere is covered with snow. However, I would like to draw your attention to a new Millward Brown Point of View on marketing in Africa written by my colleague Matthew Angus. Matthew's POV, titled "Brand Building in Africa in 2010: A Field Guide for the Final Frontier," is an excellent read for anyone involved in marketing anywhere in the world.

In creating the POV, Matthew has combined his passion for Africa with Millward Brown's extensive experience of working with global, regional, and local clients across the continent (over 20 years in at least 15 countries).  While the POV is a fascinating summary of issues specific to Africa, it contains much that is relevant to marketing everywhere, such as this paragraph:

The lesson here is that life in Africa is unique in many ways, and many of the daily challenges faced cannot be conceptualized by outsiders. There is, however, the risk of oversubscribing to the “This is Africa” philosophy. Many of the concerns and challenges faced by rural Africans would be familiar to a New York banker. Africans are different, except when they’re the same. Only strong research and insight will help you tell the difference.

The statement "Africans are different, except when they're the same" touches on the fundamental problem facing all marketers. People everywhere are different, except when they're the same. Marketers need to identify and draw on the common bonds and motivations that tie humanity together without losing sight of the differences. All too many attempts to market to new target audiences, within or across a country's borders, fall afoul of differences that undermine the initiative.

As I described in this post, written almost a year ago, many extremely successful businesses have attempted to go global and been thwarted when they lacked a full understanding of local expectations and shopping habits. The challenges are not limited to the differences between developing and developed economies. U.K.-based Tesco entered the U.S. market in 2007 with its Fresh & Easy stores, expecting to break even by 2010. (Click here for an interesting video on Fresh & Easy in the United States.)  But last April, the company announced that profitability would not arrive on schedule. The combined effect of the economic downturn in the U.S. and market research that may have been misread resulted in a loss of more than $150 million for the trading year.

As an article in the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper points out, "The store concept was based on minutely detailed market research, which saw Tesco executives living in the homes of American consumers to watch what they ate and how they shopped." If the research was carried out properly, it seems that some of the observations may have been misjudged, perhaps colored by viewing through a British cultural lens. For instance, the video I referenced earlier draws attention to the different connotations of the word "fresh" in Europe and the United States, which may lead to rather different expectations. Such misinterpretations can prove costly; in the Guardian article, Mike Dennis at Piper Jaffray estimated that if Tesco decides to pull out of the United States, the venture will have cost £1billion.

One way to begin to disentangle commonalties and differences is to draw on the talents of both global and local managers. As the experience of Tesco suggests, direct personal experience of a different culture can still lead to misunderstandings.  Real insight (as noted in my previous post) relies on convergence, not just of data but of understanding and insight. When it comes to working across borders, it helps to have input from people who have an intimate knowledge of the local culture.

Searching out and reviewing all forms of marketing intelligence is also key; Points of View such as Matthew's are invaluable sources of insight.

Do you have any thoughts on this topic? When dealing with a new country or culture, where do you look for local insight, and how do you decide what approach is likely to work?


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  1. Debashish Brahma, January 06, 2010
    Dear Nigel,
    It took twenty years for Kellogg to make the Japanese take Kellogg’s (or Corn Flakes) in Japan.
    I 'm keenly looking/watching all the MNC's coming to India, and how they are tailoring their products according to the Indian taste regions and culture.
    Africa undoubtedly has got big potentials, we in India are designing Cars for the EUU markets( apart from Nano TATA Motors) other Indian manufacturers are designing cars for the East European markets also the EEUs, carefully understanding the needs of the customers.
    Samsung, LG these Asian Brands have really made deep rooted penetration in the U.S and the EEU markets, or course these are South Korean Brands, next to Japanese Global Brands. Now it's the time for the Indian and Chinese Brands to go Global.
    But tailoring is required the most effective and a very successful story is Hindustan Unilever Ltd.Unilever round the worlds has done unique brand positioning even though the products ate having low entry barriers.
    Dove Brand extension and category extension globally is a wonderful case study, Thanks for the post.
    Warm Regards,
    Wish you ah Happy New Year,
    With Warm Regards
  2. Alastair Gordon, January 05, 2010
    Nigel, very pertinent post as MR globalises. The drivers of consumer response are pretty common across cultures although the mix varies (so if you are in parts of Africa base quality and after-sales service may matter more than style etc.), but especially in something like retailing the indicators (how consumers define them) of each driver vary wildly. As you say "Fresh" is a great example: fresh veges means something very different to an Asian versus the average US consumer, both in terms of how "fresh is fresh", what they are prepared to do to get that attribute and how they actually figure out it is fresh. The devil is in the details, and details matter in retailing.
    Observation and home visits with local consumer ares hugely useful (Unilever & P&G have forced it on their execs for years), but it suffers from the general problems of much Qualitative analysis: a tendency to focus on the loudest, most obvious themes, subjectivity issues and sample bias. Such information needs to be "framed" by simultaneous analysis of quantitative data and for the analysis to be structured so you don't miss the "details". Two thoughts:
    1. I wonder if Tesco got a variety of local MR professionals in the same room at the same time to discuss their final plans (by variety I mean Panel, Quali, communications researchers etc). I've found in the markets I've worked in that you rapidly become much more of an expert than the average expat simply because you examine so many topics in such depth (luxury cars one day, San Pro the next etc....). Maybe we often (and this may be our fault) fail to get ourselves integrated into the client planning process in the right place or time?
    2. A couple of years ago I ran "creativity workshops" for an Asian electronics giant looking at new product opportunities in the US market. The core of this was getting the execs (sales, marketing, R&D) to empathise with the needs of US consumers and actively consider new approaches. We utilised FGD videos, survey results, observation studies etc. to give context and then used role-play, brainstorming techniques to try and create ideas and create practical plans. The important point though was that the observation/videos were actively interpreted and the initial ideas flowing from them challenged, synthesised and refined by myself and our team. Too often such a structured approach to looking at "rich" cultural data is missing and all the "new stuff" that the client sees is often so exciting that more mundane (but often vital) details get overlooked.
    Anyway, sorry for going on, but I've seen this sort of issue in lots of countries over many years and think MR people could do a lot more to help clients avoid problems like this.

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