Global Marketing: Understanding a Country’s Unique Cultures

March 29, 2012

By Ken Beaulieu

This is part two of my recent interview with Chris Burggraeve, chief marketing officer at Anheuser-Busch InBev and president of the World Federation of Advertisers. In part one, Chris explained the importance of understanding the strengths of your competitors in each market, and how AB InBev’s “Way of Marketing” creates sustainable brand health. Here, he shares his thoughts on overcoming the “ugly American” stereotype.

Q: Many companies have been criticized for introducing new products to new markets without taking the time to learn about the unique cultures that exist within each country. What valuable lessons have you learned about marketing outside “traditional” boundaries?

Chris: There are many entertaining and very instructive books about misfiring in global business, such as Blunders in International Business, by David Ricks. One can get “lost in translation” very easily. I will never forget one of my first trips to China many years ago. I was invited to a hotel by the local Chinese manager with a note saying, “Welcome at happy hour for drinks and snake.” He meant snacks. Many people have stories like that. But the interesting thing is that most of these stories are about Western companies expanding into so called emerging markets. Evaluating local opportunities through a parochial view, through a specific American lens, for example, can be very risky. It can lead to that “Ugly American” stereotype portrayed in the brilliant 1958 political novel by the same name. Recently, I saw a new Broadway show in New York City called Chinglish. It’s a hilariously funny story about a Midwestern entrepreneur and his first ventures in China. The theatre was filled equally with Chinese and Americans, yet everyone had a blast. The show made it clear, in a very elegant way, that getting lost in translation is not a one-sided phenomenon. 

Empathy is needed by both parties. That is why cross-cultural management skills are more important than ever. You must have empathy for the country in which you wish to operate, regardless of the paradigms you bring with you from your host country. You must learn to see the world through a local lens to be successful and relevant. The lesson is equally valid for emerging market brands wishing to expand to the West. In my role as president of the World Federation of Advertisers, I have met many proud brand owners in China, Brazil, Russia, and India. They all wish to build their local brands into global brands, as they understand the long-term financial and cultural power of the global brand concept. They all want to be the next Apple, Coca-Cola, or Budweiser. All have strong cultures and heritages, all are flush with cash, all are brimming with self-confidence. But if they don’t watch out, the “Ugly (Country)” television series will become a reality fast.


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