Wednesday, 11 June 2014

"I Want To Know What Marketing (Love) Is" by Foreigner

By poeloq (IMG_5486) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
One of the most formative experiences in a professional marketer’s career must be an assignment overseas. I was fortunate. In my career, I was transferred to various countries (China, South Africa) to take up different marketing roles of various complexities. It grew me tremendously as a marketer from the sheer volume of new personal and professional experiences I encountered. I’m not going to discuss the oft-painful logistics of relocating countries. There are moving companies for that. Being entirely out of my comfort zone comes naturally with the territory (pun intended).
What was more relevant was how I adapted as a marketer in a foreign country to perform well in my role. It was evident to me that in order to perform at maximum capability, it was critical to learn all that I could about the country I was posted to, in the shortest time possible.
Here is a collection of tips that could help marketers do well for an overseas posting. It’s best to be upfront; it might not work for everyone. Living and working overseas is an adventure. But master this well and you might just fall in love with marketing in a foreign land.

“You Are Not Local”

Obvious point, you say? As a seasoned transplant, I often observe this with new marketing professionals brought in the organization. Perhaps it’s in the marketer’s DNA, but they like to ‘be the voice of the consumer’ in an environment they have no clue about. They gleefully jump into arguments about consumer targets, media channel choices, budgetary allocations and strategy decisions.
There is no beginner’s luck in marketing; you need to get it right the first time. You are not local. Sit back for a bit. Collaborate with your local colleagues to gain insights on the business conditions and consumers you’d be engaging with. Ask for feedback diligently on decisions made. Rely on your digital, PR, retail, media, research and advertising agencies (if you have them) to school you in the intricacies of your chosen market. Set aside full-day immersion sessions where you can learn uninterruptedly from each. Do this at least twice in your first month with each of them.
If you’re new to a country, allow yourself no less than 3 months (100 days is a good gauge) to familiarize yourself with the local marketing environment (consumers, media, agencies, booking availability, digital penetration, etc). Employers expect expat marketers to be able to ‘hit the ground running’ immediately. The reality is, more often than not, these new marketers just hit the wall, figuratively.

“You Must Go Local”

Diversity is the spice of marketing life. Most of the outstanding marketers I know are inevitably surrounded with great people and influences. As a foreign marketer, there is no better way to learn than by making local friends. Be of open mind and a strong stomach. Eat where they eat. Party where they party. Shop where they shop. Spend time hanging out in the major shopping malls if you’re in FMCG. Observe the retail behavior from the behind and in front of a counter. If you are in charge of multiple countries in a region, visit those key markets and spend a minimum of three full weekends (not weekdays!) in each to absorb the local practices. There’s a tendency to seek out your fellow countrymen/women when new to a country. Resist that urge. It normally ends up like an ‘Expats Anonymous’ session anyway.
DO learn to speak the primary language. That’s why they call it marketingcommunication. Take classes if necessary. Practise everyday on your local colleagues until you notice them bleeding from the ears. Peruse local publications, websites and outdoor media copiously. Even if you don’t grasp the language; in reviewing the visual imagery and juxtaposition, you’ll learn something. Nothing is more crucial than being able to construct a marketing message and making sure it works. If you’re not at native fluency, being able to hold a coherent informal conversation will still put you miles ahead. Have a sense of humor if you make mistakes. I still get amused smiles from the locals when I speak French (horrendously) in Francophone Africa. They do appreciate the effort, n’est-ce pas?
“You Are So Local”
In my previous roles, I created the opportunities to do micro-experiments to gauge how relevant and impactful my marketing messaging was. If you’re lucky enough to be in an organization that encourages innovation trials, exploit that. Try your own hand at creating a marketing message and get it tested qualitatively. Digital marketing is well suited for quantitative testing. Nothing gives a better impression than digital, I always say.
So you've done all of the above and more, and you wonder if you’ve learnt anything in this period. It doesn’t count if your local colleagues or marketing partners say, ‘You’re so local.’ It doesn’t count if your team garners awards locally. It doesn’t count if you chalk up positive sales growth from your marketing activities. What does count, is the marketing cycle never ends. In a foreign country, there will always be something new to learn everyday.
And that is actually, what I love about marketing as a foreigner.