Global marketing can be a thankless job but it can achieve great things
A view from Helen Edwards

Global marketing can be a thankless job but it can achieve great things

There is something noble in the persistence that keeps global marketers going in the face of all odds.

The global marketer's role is tough – made harder by the knowledge that some of the most powerful people in the organisation would prefer it didn't exist at all.

Its locus is somewhere called "the centre", which isn’t really a place but a culture-free Esperanto of a compound whose precise geographical location is irrelevant, since its very point is geographical neutrality.

There are budgets at the centre, but not the meaty kind necessary to effect a global launch or create a new range: it’s more about consumer research or brand architecture exploration. And there is influence – or should be – but it’s the kind that travels the "dotted lines" of the organogram rather than the solid arrows of imperative. What there isn’t is clout. What’s transparently absent are sanctions.

Those with the power are colleagues in "the regions" – actual somewheres, with cultures, languages, religions, ways and habits to give them depth and gravitas. And proper budgets, born of proper sales.

Open hostility between regional and global marketers is not common but neither is it unheard of. The local guys understand that they work for a multi-market business and must attempt to embrace the demands for efficiencies – which could be anything from the migration of locally famous brands into global ones or the adoption of a globally aligned positioning and communications idea.

More of a norm is passive resistance – the sage nodding to a proposal from the centre accompanied by the sighs and regrettable doubts concerning its suitability "for here". If the regional agency is anywhere to be seen, it will be mouthing "lowest common denominator" and other grave warnings against the breadth of communications canvas.

Those with the power are colleagues in "the regions" – actual somewheres, with cultures, languages, religions, ways and habits to give them depth and gravitas.

There is something noble in the persistence that keeps global marketers going in the face of all odds. They understand cultural differences better than any – the contrast between Latin American individualism and Asian communality, the limitations of Anglo-Saxon directness – but believe that what unites humankind is greater than what divides it. 

On their side are the sound rational arguments against brand fragmentation and the emotional high ground of the theory of human universals.

And they will make these pleas with seemingly endless patience. But it’s the kind of role where three steps forward can never seem to be taken without two steps back.

Putting them on the back foot will be any kind of academic study that might undermine their "one world" argument and give firepower to adversaries who lobby for a localised strategic model.

A recent example is a survey from Our World in Data that highlights the enormous gulf in interpersonal trust among cultures around the globe. Shown the statement "Most people can be trusted", just 4% agreed in Colombia, contrasted with 74% in Norway – with other countries in-between (see panel).

Since trust is a fundamental of all commercial transactions, this variance makes awkward reading for those seeking to inspire through the concept of "shared humanity". You certainly wouldn’t want to be a global marketer in a business based on reciprocity between individuals – such as Airbnb.

Another guaranteed backward step for the global team is the company-wide travel ban – usually a fourth-quarter measure when the numbers are getting critical, though I’ve seen it more generally applied of late.

It works in the narrowest sense – cutting costs in the short term and encouraging smarter use of technology. For the regional marketers, it’s probably a relief not to have to get halfway across the world for that big brand conference.

But it robs global marketers of credibility – itself a subset of trust and the ultimate corporate currency. It’s one thing to fly to a big market, see the reality first-hand, talk the numbers face-to-face with the local team and still make your case for the aligned view, albeit suitably nuanced based on your empirical observations. It’s quite another thing to attempt to win people round when you haven’t stepped outside the centre. To the regional marketers, you’re from nowhere – and you might as well be no-one.

So global marketing is not for the faint-hearted. But it’s a thing of beauty when it’s done right: unified brand meaning, universal fame, more inspiration on less budget. Corporations would do well to give a little more support to their "centre" and treat it as somewhere special.

Our world in data

The University of Oxford-based online publication aims to help us see "where we are coming from and where we are today", bringing data to life in maps, graphics, tables and analysis, covering everything from energy use to daily calorie intake.

The authors see interpersonal trust as a fundamental element of social capital and a key component of wellbeing and economic development, and its global comparisons of trust data point to considerable differences around the world.

Scandinavian countries are the most trusting, with well over 60% of respondents agreeing that "most people can be trusted" – while the figures for South America average at less than 10%. The US is at 38% – but has been falling for years. China is at 62%. The UK sits towards the low end at just under 30%

Helen Edwards is a former PPA business columnist of the year, has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.
@helenedw

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