Working abroad forces marketers to ask questions of themselves and challenge received wisdom. Everyone should do it if they get the chance says Jessica Spence, vice-president of commercial, Carlsberg Asia.
Globe-trotting as a marketer is a fabulous opportunity. Getting paid to travel the world selling beer isn’t a bad deal.
Having spent most of the past 10 years abroad, first in Russia and central Europe and the last three in Asia, I’ve learnt a lot about myself but also three key things about marketing. These have helped me in each new location, but would also have been valuable if I were closer to home.
First, ‘stay stupid’. I don’t mean staying wilfully ignorant, but get comfortable spending more time asking stupid questions. Most marketers have a healthy sense of curiosity – working out what makes people tick, and applying that to the business, is the core of what we do. But spending too long in the comfort zone of one’s own culture – where we read the signals almost unconsciously, can prevent us from challenging assumptions and the status quo. Being put perpetually in a position where things are odd, seemingly inexplicable, and forcing yourself to decode behaviours and culture on a constant basis sharpens your core skills. Travel gives you the freedom to ask and question everything.
Second, never assume that marketing trends flow inevitably from ‘developed’ to ‘developing’ markets. When I started my career in advertising, I was based in London and had a very ‘London-New York’ centric view of the world. Categories were more developed, data was excellent and our consumers very marketing-literate. This can drive a perception that trends will be created in developed markets, and then will flow down to the other markets.
It is doubtful this was ever true, but in today’s world it is definitely not. You shouldn’t expect markets to follow or catch up on trends from Western Europe or the US. I spend more time searching out the new from all of my markets, and understanding why it’s happening. Only then is it possible to decide whether it is an idea that can or will travel, and how it might be adapted.
In my sector, craft beer is a big trend in Europe and the US. In these markets the drivers were both a desire for new tastes and varieties, but also a disenchantment with big corporates. Only part of this is true for Asian consumers, a learning that is shaping how we reinterpret this for our markets.
Recently, the trend on smartphone sizing has reversed from quite small to big. One of the first things I noticed when I moved to Asia was the size of mobiles (much bigger) and the more time spent on them. In part this was driven by the need for phones to cope with keying in characters and demanding more space than the alphabet – a driver that wouldn’t travel. But it also enabled consumers to have a much richer mobile experience that kept them online for longer – a driver that suggested this trend would travel more broadly. Spotting what’s happening and thinking hard about ‘why’ is key to getting and staying ahead.
Lastly, be wary of the easy assumption or parallel. You need to simplify or find ways to make things familiar, but often moving too fast misses the important differences. Sina Weibo is often described as the Twitter of China, a microblogging platform with huge penetration and usage. What this hides is the effect of the Chinese characters – like Twitter, the limit for a post on Weibo is 140 characters. But when an individual character can communicate an entire word or concept, this is a rich and full paragraph – not just a quick comment as with Twitter’s limit. This has a huge impact on what the platform can be used for, and how you can market through it. The quick parallel here will draw you off in the wrong direction – simplify to get clarity, but never jump too quickly to the easy conclusion.
All of this can be summarised under the heading of ‘curiosity’. Every good marketer is fundamentally curious, but the chance to globe trot reinforces it. My challenge, if I ever end up home, will be to keep this freshness, without the perpetual change of scenery and jet lag to prompt me.
The Marketing Society is a network of over 2,700 senior marketers. We challenge our members to think differently and be bolder marketing leaders by supporting the development of leading-edge thinking and promoting the evidence of effective marketing. As part of our partnership with Marketing Week this regular global column will feature the insights and thoughts of senior members in Asia and afar.