International PR Tips For Small-Timers

Don’t start thinking about communications and marketing issues until you have studied and understood the local business issues in each new market.

europeflagTake the European Community. Just as U.S. federal law has great impact on your business even if you operate in only a few states, so does EC law affect you even if you only do business in a few European countries. As various directives are being discussed by the European Parliament, it is crucial that your business get its views across to the decision-makers before new laws are enacted. Yet in many European countries corporate lobbying is not accepted. Governments want to hear from trade associations rather than from individual corporations. The prevailing view seems to be, “Do your lobbying within your association and then come to us with a composite industry view.”

When we opened for business in Russia the staff of our local Reader’s Digest magazine didn’t arrive at work until 9:30 or 10 in the morning. It’s not that they are lazy. They’d been up since 5 a.m. standing in lines for food. Three hours for butter. Another two for milk. Another three hours for a scrawny chicken. One of our editors quit because we required her to work a 40-hour week. She couldn’t spend that many hours on the job because she had no babushka to stand in lines for her.

Today the problems are reversed for the average Russian worker. The shelves of once-empty stores now carry Danish hot dogs, German biscuits, American soda pop and computers. But who has the money to buy them when 20 to 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and the gap between rich and poor has grown to Latin American levels? And security is a major issue, especially for employees paid in hard currency like American dollars and German marks.

Tip #2 – Do your research early so you have time to recover from surprises.

People in many international markets probably have little or no knowledge of your brand – or your company. This can be hard to believe – and hard on the ego of a company like The Reader’s Digest Association, whose magazines, books, music and videos are enjoyed by 100 million people every single month. Yet our research showed less than five percent of the people in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland had ever heard of us. Believe me, that Iron Curtain was strong!

You cannot assume your target audience even knows what you are trying to sell. In Eastern Europe, for example, consumers thought the Energizer Bunny commercials were selling little pink bunnies. A shampoo company drew blank stares and weak sales from ads for a two-for-one shampoo. In the U.S. the ads would have sold on emotions – like having sexier hair. In new markets the pitch must be more basic and factual – in this case explaining that having the conditioner in the shampoo results in fluffier hair.

So you need to think through your positioning carefully – and test it. Pick one or two simple messages and repeat them over and over again – in your ads, news materials, promotion and point of sale pieces, sales brochures, billboards, everywhere. Never miss an opportunity to picture your product and sell its benefits. Frequency, focus and consistency are key to making them familiar to potential consumers.

Tip #3 – English is the universal language of global business – BUT …!

Be alert for communications problems, which can be made worse by the fact that most of the people you are dealing with are listening and speaking in a second language. I don’t think problems of the language barrier can be overestimated. Each conversation in an international country takes place on two planes. You are thinking and speaking in English. But your colleagues probably have to do the translation in their heads before they can comprehend and respond.

People sometimes pretend to understand, not wanting to interrupt the flow of conversation for clarification. Or maybe they think they do understand – but subtleties are lost. You need to talk frequently, and listen carefully, to be sure there’s an easy avenue for questions. Remember that Sherlock Holmes’ best clue came when the dog did not bark. It is inevitable that there will be problems associated with any major launch in a new market. So get on a plane, make yourself available and find out firsthand what’s going on. Nothing beats on-site knowledge.

On the other hand, be wary of business people who have traveled in the West saying they speak no English. Even if they require a translator, they may understand more English than they let on. Be careful not to discuss your negotiating strategy with colleagues in asides, thinking no one else understands.

And watch your translations. They must be impeccably accurate, and in the local idiom. I’ve had the most success with translators who work for United Nations and visiting government dignitaries. Surprisingly, refugees returning home after living many years outside their home countries may not be the best translators if they are out of date on some of the current usage and phraseology.

Tip #4 – Take advantage of local resources to help you avoid big-time boo-boos and cultural gaffs.

Even the much heralded European Community did not result in one homogenized market in 1992. Europeans have sharply contrasting outlooks, tastes and resources. Three hundred forty-two million people speaking 10 languages in 12 countries – yes, they have common interests, but they also have distinct individual identities. The Dutch will remain Dutch. The French will remain French. The Germans will remain German. And the political and economic debates over the euro, Europe’s planned single currency, will continue up to the moment it debuts in 1999 (if the current schedule holds) – and probably beyond.

In fact, as trade barriers come down sometimes sensitivities go up. Witness conflicts relating to the North American Free Trade Agreement about which countries are losing or gaining jobs. That’s what makes “going global” so interesting – and doing business in international markets so dangerous unless you keep your cross-cultural wits about you.

You need someone who will catch you if your ad looks like it was created from an American perspective – like the Coke ad showing a glass filled with ice when every U.S. traveler knows getting enough ice cubes in Europe is almost impossible. To alert you that Ukrainians want their new country called Ukraine, not the Ukraine. To remind you that in Hungary last names come before first and in Russia people wear their wedding rings on their right hands. That was important to a U.S. baby care company which offended everyone when it showed a young girl with a baby. Scandalized consumers thought she was an unwed mother because she wore no ring on her right hand.

And what about EuroDisney refusing to serve wine when they opened their park outside Paris until customer animosity and staff defections forced them to “do it the French way”?

In China there is no such thing as “fashionably late.” Be punctual or a few minutes early for business meetings. Call people by surname – given names are used only with children, close friends and relatives – and address the oldest or most senior person first.

So local advice is a must.

And so is patience. Business people in most other countries are shocked by how direct Americans are, especially when we are selling something. It’s best if we slow down a bit and take time to build relationships before we start asking for details of another company’s financial results and marketing strategies. And when you are in meetings with Europeans and Asians, don’t mistake quiet for inattention. As a Frenchman recently complained to his American-owned company’s president, “Just because I’m not talking doesn’t mean I’m not involved.”

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