While the merits and demerits of globalisation continue to be debated, a new global village has already taken shape. And, however much marketing practitioners in Europe and North America would like it to, it doesn't belong to us. In 2003, Goldman Sachs published a fascinating study that predicted a new G6 consisting of China, the US, India, Japan, Brazil and Russia. No European country would qualify, although the European Union as a bloc would probably compete with China, the US and India. The report's conclusion: at present rates of growth and modernisation, the future is a Bric - Brazil, Russia, India, China.
It excited us to be in the business of global communications when the globe was about to get more interesting, and our team has been eagerly devouring everything about the Brics and their neighbours.
But we noticed that in European-American marketing circles, this Bric future was seen as an economic opportunity, but with cultural "barriers" that brand managers would have to overcome. The subtext was: "How do we market to people in these 'backward emerging markets'?"
Very successful brand managers around the world are able to see this - hell, they LIVE this - and yet I sit in the same presentations and meetings all over the world, hearing how culture X or how market Y isn't ready for that kind of content and how rich, white, Anglo-American values are "aspirational", and I just want to scream. What are you people reading?
Even The Economist paints a cultural picture of China that is richer than massive construction projects and 200 million middle-class consumers with Confucian family values. Brazil has a space programme, a biotech industry and alternative fuels projects. The coolest and edgiest new nightlife, fashion and music in Europe is coming from the East and Russia. It's not the Polish plumber the media should be hand-wringing about, so much as the Polish DJ, designer, director and graffiti artist.
We like to think that the Bric-centric world (including the extended regions of Mercosur, CIS, South Asia, Asean and East Asia, not to mention the currently topical role the Middle East and Africa might play) is less a cultural challenge than the most significant cultural opportunity for global marketers since multinational mass media and the internet.
The issue isn't when "they" will look like "us" and much as when "we" will all have aspects of one another.
Look at how people outside Western culture have been using the methods, language and codes of branding to add power and permanence to cultural phenomena and movement politics. One day, some disaffected political supporters congregate in the squares of Kiev, the next, they've adopted a colour, a name for their movement, a tagline and key messages, an event marketing strategy and programme, and an extended PR and viral marketing programme.
In Ukraine, one of those "emerging countries" that supposedly aren't yet "sophisticated" about branding. Yeah, right. Then comes Lebanon, where "orange" is replaced by "cedar" but is nonetheless another populist revolution.
Purple fingers, red and blue states, yellow ribbons ... it seems everyone has a signature identity now.
From the town square to the high street, highly local, even tribal movements, anywhere in the world, become part of the global cultural mix in a matter of moments. Harajuku girls, B-Boys, Skaters, Gamers, Rave Trustafarians, Slavic Supermodels, and every ethnic and cultural combination im-aginable - giving people a sense of individuality and belonging in one package. The Bric-centric difference is richer and more random mixes of new and old, global and local, with access enabled by media, technology and transcontinental travel having created a much more diverse world of hybrid cultures. Add one part you, one part your native culture, and a couple of parts of something new.
Then blend until well-remixed.
But not if we continue to look at the world through an Anglo-American or European bias. The agency networks, in their typically myopic view that cultural influence is driven by current revenue, see these markets more as new frontiers for existing brands, with an "alien" culture that needs to be converted. But they fail to see a reverse cultural osmosis already happening. Get on the youth-culture ground, and you'll see the Brics are already making themselves felt, at home, in their regions, and even in Europe or North America, in surprising new ways.
The important thing for marketers to ask now is not how to move "Western" brands into "emerging" markets, but how best to connect a brand's values to the common values of many different people in a global market.
What approach do more successful brand managers take? And how can you make a brand personally and emotionally relevant to many different individuals while remaining focused, consistent and economically prudent in your management?
There isn't a silver-bullet answer to the difficult questions above.
But our unique experience - as a two-location, multicultural agency, with lots of talent in lots of places working simultaneously from the street up and across diverse borders - tells us that having a strong understanding of culture and cultures in all of their manifestations is the best way to start getting to that answer. It's fun and enlightening to learn about the world from something more organic and authentic than BBC World or Datamonitor (worthy sources though they both are). Quite simply, understanding global markets starts with an understanding of global culture or cultures - all of them - on an equal level.
Where can one begin? With so much information and so many stimuli to choose from, why bother getting bogged down in the minutiae of all these subcultures when the common threads are all that you need to develop a common message and build a coherent brand identity - right? Well, you can do that, and probably muddle your way to a qualified success. But you just know someone hungrier and more persistent is going to dig a little deeper, and look a little harder for the surprising common insights that resonate more powerfully. Leaving you as the clueless global "bland brand" that runs irrelevant cultural caricature marketing.
StrawberryFrog hopes to be more curious than that. Hungrier than that, better than that. We love people, we love and embrace all cultures, and we use everything from everywhere with equal regard to its value in the global mix. Taking off the blinkers opens up the possibilities.
- Richard Monturo is the director of strategy at StrawberryFrog Amsterdam.
AT A GLANCE
Founded: Valentine's Day 1999
Principals: Brian Elliott, Richard Monturo, Al Kelly
Location: Amsterdam, New York
Mission statement: Create cultural movements for brands
Describe your agency in three words: Deadly Red Amphibian.