Messages that work in the US may fall flat elsewhere, so they must be tailored to fit local audiences. John N. Frank looks at why US success doesn't always translate abroad.Building a brand is a matter of creating consistent messages and disseminating them wherever the brand wants to go. And the best way to get those messages out around the world is to do whatever has worked in the US - press conferences, major media tours and the like, right?
Well, not exactly. Messages that resonate with American audiences may make no sense to someone in Bulgaria or China. Brand values that mean one thing in the US may mean something completely different in another country.
Messages need to be tailored to local market conditions and sensibilities.
But don't stop there. Even the methods for delivering brand messages must change from country to country.
"The number-one mistake that I find American companies making is that they assume the media overseas is just like the US media,
says Mike Bowden, chairman of ECCO International, a network of 37 independent PR and marketing communications firms in 32 countries. "American companies go into the second or third world knowing the business climate is going to be different, but they don't take into account that the media climate is going to be different."
ECCO members invited PRWeek to sit in on a roundtable held at their spring annual meeting in Chicago last week, where they discussed the challenges US companies face doing PR and marketing communications around the globe.
The consensus was that US companies can succeed abroad if they study the local markets, and then find ways to become part of the local world rather than simply being seen as US interlopers.
"There is a willingness to accept international brands, but people in other countries don't want their own national brands destroyed. They're saying, 'Preserve our brands and offer us more choices,'
contends Sconaid McGeachin, a director with MMD, a British PR firm now doing business throughout Eastern Europe.
US Steel faced the issue of being accepted abroad in 1999 when it sought to buy a formerly state-owned steel mill in Slovakia. Initial press reports were negative, portraying US Steel as "the big, bad foreigner," says McGeachin.
MMD worked with US Steel to position it as a company coming to buoy the local economy and provide jobs. "Within six months, we had turned media coverage around,
The US Steel example demonstrates the importance of taking into account local sensibilities and local priorities, says Sara Render, CEO of Kinross & Render, a London-based firm. "US companies are bad, thinking what works here works everywhere,
she says. "They often perceive globalization as being Americanization."
Microsoft is one American company guilty of that, Render argues. It's been using Bill Gates to push its Xbox gaming unit in Europe, but Gates carries the negative image of an "ugly American
corporate executive trying to take over a European market. Sony, on the other hand, has used local PR to push its PlayStation2, and outdistanced Microsoft in the process.
"They do things that mean fun and entertainment in those markets," Render says of Sony.
Pizza Hut stumbled when it "tried to handle Bulgarian customers as it had in the US,
says Assen Gruev, business development manager for Princeps, a Bulgarian agency. Local competitors emphasized their local roots and the quality of their products, and Pizza Hut suffered in the Bulgarian market as a result, Gruev says.
The message may not translate
"US companies do not consider the way their messages are translated to a local audience,
he adds. While a company like Ralph Lauren might plaster billboards with the slogan "Express Yourself
in the US, putting that up in Bulgaria, where freedom of expression is not a common concept because of decades of communist rule, would produce more shock than brand identity.
Gruev says he turned down an American company that wanted him to use a similar message as it entered the Bulgarian market. The company found another PR firm willing to push its US message, but ultimately failed in the market, he says.
Some US companies are doing it right in Europe, ECCO members say. At first, McDonald's stumbled in Austria, but connected with locals when it began emphasizing its use of Austrian ingredients, says Christian Kollmann, MD with Communications Matters, an Austrian agency. Austrian consumers accept American brands if they connect with the local market, Kollman contends. They want to feel "it's an international brand, but it's our part of the international brand,
John Deere routinely partners with local companies as it sells its farming equipment in Europe, says Bowden, who in addition to chairing ECCO, runs Brand Central Station, an Iowa firm that matches agencies and clients.
Deere learned its lesson the hard way in the 1960s when it tried to simply set up shop in Europe as it would in Iowa or Indiana, Bowden notes.
Heinz did extensive community outreach in the Netherlands when it expanded a plant there, garnering community support, adds Monique Hendriks, a senior advisor with Bex van der Schans in Eindhoven.
Doing it right means not only accommodating local sensibilities, but also knowing what works in terms of media relations and PR techniques in various countries.
Trying to break into the Japanese market by simply sending out hundreds of invitations to a press conference is considered a PR faux pas, for example. Direct mail and cold-calling reporters is also considered rude, says Render. The key to doing business in Japan is personal relationships.
A press conference can be organized by getting local contacts to invite reporters they know. "In some Asian countries, who contacts who is almost more important than what they're contacting them about,
In some European countries, such as Poland, the trade press is just developing, so large press conferences aren't possible. "In Central and Eastern Europe, the things that work well are one-on-one interviews and roundtables,
Press conferences are acceptable in Russia, but reporters there expect to be paid to attend such gatherings. Western PR pros call this "black PR,
but in places like Russia and China, it's part of the media landscape.
Chinese companies routinely pay for story placement, says Ming Zhang, GM with Guangming Public Relations in China. "When Chinese journalists come to a news conference, they always expect to get some money,
Local and national PR organizations have begun taking shape in China, but aren't strong enough as yet to change this practice.
"Black PR in Central and Eastern Europe is definitely on the way out," says McGeachin. But while it exists, American companies need to be aware of it as they seek media attention in new markets.
Singing the same song
Does all this advice mean American companies should abandon their concept of consistent messaging and speaking with one corporate voice? Bowden and his colleagues say no.
"You have to be consistent, but you also have to be relevant to local markets,
Bowden says. That can mean looking at a company's messages, keeping core values for the brand, but translating those into themes that appeal to individual markets.
"There's always this great sense that we need to create one voice for a brand,
Bowden explains. To do business around the world, "the brand message needs to be a chorus with everyone singing a different part," but the parts all fitting together under the overall brand umbrella, he suggests.
Companies that fail to get their choral arrangements in order before venturing into new markets just might find they're hitting flat notes that are not in tune with local sensibilities.