"We live in a truly global world."
"Borders between cultures are shrinking."
"Understanding is growing between us as we become ever-more connected."
Blah, blah, blah.
This is the spiel we tell our clients, our counterparts and even our friends and family on a daily basis. And it’s true. Any relevant brand today needs to have a global perspective.
But after leaving the UK for Europe, and having spent more time in Asia for a new venture in the past few months, I’m beginning to realise that the globalised perspective we help brands cultivate is often predicated on Western sensibilities, tastes and cultural references.
In other words, we’re viewing "global marketing" through a Western cultural lens.
Challenging ourselves to think differently and to go deeper could be the difference between success and failure as we enter a new phase of global communication in which the West is no longer at its centre.
My own dictatorial approach to global
My first personal taste of working globally was in publishing.
I started my career in the UK film industry, before stints with Channel 4 and fashion publication Dazed & Confused (now Dazed). Both are UK-centred organisations rooted in British society and culture, and they really shaped my own tastes and attitudes to the world.
It wasn’t until I arrived at Vice Media, which in 2015 was still growing internationally at a maniacal pace, that I had to put a global hat on. I was in charge of video for its fashion channel i-D (itself originally a magazine steeped in British street style), as well as sister luxury lifestyle site Amuse. Unlike the rest of Vice that was headquartered in the US, i-D and Amuse were headquartered in London.
Suddenly, I had to work with a host of European, North American, South American and Asian counterparts, all eager to translate our magical British fashion formula to their own markets. My instinct was to fall back on my British sensibilities – and to be fairly dictatorial (this was fashion, after all). We assumed we knew best. We had the taste and an understanding of who and what was "in" and "out". We decided from a London headquarters what would work in Mexico City or Kiev, without having to leave our desks.
I never really questioned this approach, because I believed that the core tenants of youth culture we were filming were truly universal across cultures.
It seemed to work. Our YouTube subscriber based quadrupled in a year. London headquarters knew best.
Then Brexit happened (we’re going to be saying that a lot, aren’t we?).
I got offered a role in Amsterdam at a small ad agency and my wife and I decided to make the sideways step from entertainment and editorial to advertising in order to try something new in the European Union while we could.
The brands I began to work with had their EMEA headquarters in the Netherlands, from Heineken to Nikon to Nike.
My Brit/global sensibilities were being challenged for the first time. A lot of the truisms I had assumed were not translatable to a global market.
Not everyone has heard of Phil Mitchell, Mr Blobby or Skepta, it turns out.
Although I had to adapt my approach, it didn’t have to completely change.
While I was working across EMEA markets for different campaigns and projects, the people I was working with were mostly from Europe, North America and Australia. My cultural echo chamber had moved from British to Western.
And, without a doubt, the ideas we came up with, the influencers we worked with and the topics we chose to pursue were all viewed through a Western lens.
After three years in Amsterdam, my wife and I have decided to start our own editorial-focused agency called Soursop. This was thanks in part to a huge global founding client. As part of our deal, we have to spend a large chunk of our time in east Asia, where this particular client is headquartered.
And, for the first time, the boot is on the other foot. The sensibilities and cultures that we are working with are distinctly non-Western.
My easy creative fallbacks are not entirely recognised. My frame of references and even my nuances of language are lost with all the fantastic new people I am now working with. And although this was disconcerting initially, it has made me reflect heavily.
Up until this point, everything I had relied on had been seen through a Western lens. Especially in the agency world, our outward view of the world is based on a set of cultural and creative values that are completely preordained from our Western viewpoints.
Being in Asia, you realise you’re in a continent that houses 4.6 billion people who don’t understand your Western viewpoint entirely (or at all, in some cases): different social media networks, different celebrity heroes, different societal battlegrounds. It’s eye-opening to experience this first hand, as opposed to through an article.
What can we learn?
Being aware of this imbalance is integral for us to help evolve our thinking, as we are asked as marketers to communicate and inspire global audiences with all their regional nuances.
As the economic pendulum swings from east to west, it is also business-critical that we do so.
I can’t help but think of the recent Cadbury campaign in India that exposed this bias (pictured, above). I, like you, lapped up the memes ridiculing Cadbury for trying to "end racism" with its multicoloured chocolate bar. Yet another example of good intent, terrible execution, right?
Wrong. The campaign in India focused on celebrating differences in regional languages and culture at a time of intensified Hindu nationalism under Narendra Modhi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The image was meant to celebrate the "rainbow of brown" in India, not global skin colours.
Should Cadbury really be stirring this pot? That’s up for debate. But within the context of India’s current political climate, it was a bold statement.
Our Western lens just couldn’t see that. It could only be seen within our own diversity and purpose marketing debates.
Yes, we live in a globalised world. Yes, we have to market to huge populations of people. But nuance and knowledge matter more than ever these days.
So, just like I’ve been forced to, challenge your own Western bias and be aware of how you can expand your thinking. I’d start by getting a non-Western client.
Ravi Amaratunga Hitchcock is co-founder of Soursop and an ex-Channel 4 commissioner