'It's Different Here:' What about culture?

OAC Global Report  

HONG KONG - April 2009 - Of course it is! The world is rich with so many cultures, languages, religions, history, food, etc. Culture counts!

When I originally wrote this, it was the first day of Chinese New Year in Hong Kong: the Year of the Ox. That week our office manager prepared HK$ 3,000 in brand new HK 20 dollar bills: 150 of them! On the first morning of the Year of the Ox, after our children (Claire 8, and James 5) were dressed, they came to both my wife and me and loudly proclaimed: “Kung Hei Fat Choi” ("Happy New Year" in Cantonese). We gave them each a lai see (red packet) with a crisp new HK$ 20 bill (US$ 2.60)! This gift will bring us both luck and is a sign of respect, gratitude and caring.

As I left our boat (yes, we live on an 80 ton steel boat) to go to the office to write this chapter, I sought out club workers in our marina with whom to share the same respect, gratitude and good luck. It’s a lot of fun giving away money and it is amazing the service and attention you get for months in return for that small gift. A similar practice, I suppose, is tipping your doorman, garbage man or mail carrier in the States during the holidays.

Recently we hired our seventh intern, the third one from the U.S.. This guy grew up as a "Third Culture Kid" (much like my own children). His dad worked for Amoco and later BP, and he and his sister grew up in Korea, the U.S. and Brazil. Because of this rich background, our intern has a unique view on culture. Recently he attended our first China Distributor meeting of 2009. I asked him how he felt we dealt with the various cultures in the room – the big ones: Chinese and American, as well as the smaller ones: Sichuan, Canton, Shandong, Chanchun, Chicago, Oklahoma, Boston and New York.

He said: “You did not deal with it all." I asked, 'What did you think about that?" He politely replied, “I’m a Third Culture Kid...I really like culture.”

I pointed out that if we focused on all the differences in that room and within our group, it would be difficult to concentrate on our common goal of growing our business at amazing rates and could be counter-productive to building a strong united team.

Instead of differences which we have to recognize, embrace and adopt (like the lai see) in international markets, experience has taught me that you must build a third culture. It should not be American, or German, or Chinese or Japanese. It should be the culture of your company, manifested by your brand.

The extremely successful teams (that I have been a part of) all contained corporate cultural keystones such as “The Loctite Way”, “Price to Value”, “We are Permatex” and the “Five Pillars of Meguiar’s Marketing”. Everyone that worked in those international businesses understood and embraced these keystones. There is extreme power in setting and selling your own culture in international markets!

"It’s different here."

I have had the pleasure of launching U.S.-made products in more than 60 countries. During these launches we present the products, do the demo, study the local market and tailor our program to local market needs.

Invariably we hear “Yeah, but” or “It’s different here". An old friend of mine, Chuck Steilen of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, would counter these objections with “Based on what analysis has drawn you to that conclusion?" In every case, there was no analysis. It was just one person’s opinion. We actually had real world experience with sales data and units sold from other similar markets of how well the approach succeeded. The only way that we could know for sure if our products would succeed in the new market would be to give our plan a try!

If you are selling starters, RTV silicone gasket makers, fan belts, tools or car wax in diverse global markets, I can guarantee that the religion, language, food, clothing and housing of your end user customers in those markets are probably not like that of your U.S. end user. However, the way technicians repair a leaky valve cover gasket, troubleshoot an engine, mount an exhaust system or detail a car is basically the same (or it should be and then you have a superb opportunity to educate and improve the market).

In one highly successful team I led, we targeted car clubs in international markets and our country distributors were the very best. In the beginning when we asked them to introduce us to car clubs, they often replied, “It’s different here. We don’t have any car clubs." Just because your 40 or 50 year-old distributor with 20+ years aftermarket experience says there are no car clubs, that does not mean there are no car clubs. This just means that they are under his radar and not a part of his reality. There are car clubs everywhere! Just yesterday we put on a clinic for the Honda Gold Wing Motorcycle Club of Hong Kong.

So how's business?

In the automotive aftermarket is our business really so bad? I read that U.S. retailers in our industry such as Advance Auto and O'Reilly's are doing quite well as Americans hold on to their cars longer and, because of less expensive gas, are driving more.

My brother just came to Hong Kong this week, looked around and said, "There's no sign of recession here!" Actually, the Hong Kong government now forecasts a 2 percent contraction in GDP this year. Our business, I am happy to report, is still growing double digits! Marketing trumps trading every time!

Editor’s Note: Tom Muldowney is the Managing Director of International Market Access Ltd. He formed IMA in Hong Kong in 2000 to help take American brands global. A longtime OAC member, Tom has sold over $500 million of U.S.-made products to international markets. He has been based in Asia for 16 years working with global brands/organizations such as Loctite, Henkel, Permatex, Teroson, 3M and Meguiar's. He has set up subsidiaries in Korea and representative offices in China. Tom can be reached at: tmuldown@gmail.com. IMA's new Web site: www.intlmarketaccess.com