For ambitious tech-driven companies, Brazil and Latin America are beguiling targets for expansion, but they also come with unique challenges that, if not addressed early, can lead to a strategy that is dead on arrival.
As the largest economy in Latin America, almost twice as big as Mexico’s, Brazil is a logical starting point for international brands. One in three Latin Americans is Brazilian but, as a geographical, economic, and cultural giant, Brazil is also linguistically unique.
According to British Council research, around 5% of Brazilians are operationally competent in English - only 1% are fluent.
To launch an online product or service, full Brazilian Portuguese language and customer support is fundamental - but it’s amazing how often foreign companies ignore this maxim.
Without it, like a tourist shouting slowly at waiters in his own language, you’re unlikely to find a receptive audience.
It can also lead to serious reputational backlash, as with last year’s botched launch of Samsung’s BixBy, an AI personal planner skinned only in English and Korean. The negative coverage of this linguistic insensitivity far outweighed any benefits or excitement.
Working on the old maxim that you only have one chance to make a good first impression, Samsung might have been better off not launching BixBy in Brazil at all.
Similarly, Brazilians do not speak Spanish. Around 10% of professionals in São Paulo do, but there is a much lower rate among the general population. Spanish is not, as some imagine, sufficiently similar that speakers of one language automatically understand the other.
Our research found nearly 70% of Brazilians regard Portuguese-language support as important or extremely important when choosing software or web products. Six out of 10 saw it as so important they would change their product or provider as soon as a Portuguese-language competitor became available - with 16% saying they would do so at any price.
More than four in 10 had already decided not to purchase a product they otherwise wanted because Portuguese was not supported. The study concluded that approximately $955 million was lost in sales opportunities in 2016 by international companies failing to offer local language support.
The jabuticaba is a delicious fruit, somewhere between a grape, a cherry, and a lychee. It only grows and is only eaten in Brazil.
This uniqueness leads people to refer to Brazilian business, administration, and society as ‘jabuticabas’ – things that only exist and work in Brazil, and only could work in Brazil.
The analogy holds true for Brazilian marketing and communications. Brazilians want to read about and use things they already see working in their environment.
International marketing or press campaigns rarely gain attention here without a local point of reference and evidence you understand the challenges Brazilians confront every day, and an answer to help solve them. Content should be locally relevant and contextualised in a way that shows knowledge of and commitment to the region.
If you can’t show your product works within Brazil’s byzantine business administration, payments and tax system, fintechs and business administration applications will be dismissed.
Don’t wait for customers to work out what to do with your product - you need to show them.
All over Latin America, from Havana to Porto Alegre, the staple lunch is rice and beans. It’s the dish exiles miss more than any other, the taste of home cooking, and a vital part of most countries’ cultural identity.
Ask any Venezuelan, Colombian, or Brazilian and each will tell you theirs is best, totally different, and special. In Brazil, debate rages even between São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Belo Horizonte about who has the best rice and beans.
But were locals see a world of extremely important difference, outsiders just see rice and beans, and assume one plate is like the next.
We assume a Latin America strategy will work, because LatAm is, to the outsider, relatively homogenous when compared to other regions of the world: "They all speak Spanish; they all have similar societies, histories, and interests."
Then there is geography. From our office in São Paulo, we are 7,427km from Mexico City; almost exactly the same distance as New York to Moscow. Brazil and Mexico have surprisingly little contact with one another.
Trying the same strategy in multiple markets will never generate the same impact as localised content. If you plan to serve rice and beans, you had better bring a local chef.
There’s no point doing the hard work of building demand for your product and traffic to your site if, at the point of payment, there’s no easy means for consumers to buy it.
Brazil has a phenomenally sophisticated financial infrastructure that grew in isolation from international norms. You should be prepared to build a range of payment options you hadn’t considered before.
Only one in four Brazilians used a credit card in 2015 and about a third of those have a card that processes international transactions in a foreign currency. Debit cards aren’t cleared for online payments in Brazil.
Alternative online debit methods are common, such as the boleto - a payment slip paid in cash or via debit - bank transfers, even coupons. PayPal is not well established; local providers such as PagSeguro are more common.
Instalment payments for purchases made via credit card are also common in Brazil, financing all sorts of goods. About 60% of consumers who use credit cards purchase in instalments without interest. Not offering this option is a quick route to an abandoned purchase.
As the Brazilian singer Tom Jobim once said, "Brazil is not for beginners" - but with growth predicted to return to 3.8% in 2018 and a market of more than 210 million consumers, international brands cannot afford to ignore the eighth-largest economy in the world.