We talk a lot about global marketing strategy these days, as if there were a one-size-fits-all approach to audience engagement. Whatever is devised by the CMO on one side of the world will clearly work anywhere the brand is present—or so goes the theory.
The truth is that what works in the US won’t work in China, and what will get an Australian audience going may well offend in Britain. And don’t get a writer started on the big debate of US versus UK English, or you’ll be sat there for days.
Today’s international frontline marketers, those at the coalface of operations, have quickly learned that there is no such thing as a simple global marketing strategy. They know that local nuances and cultural differences can put the kibosh on—or put an end to, make less effective, insert local phrase here—even the most well-meaning of top-down strategies.
That doesn’t mean a global approach to marketing cannot work, though. Plenty of CMOs at multinational companies are proving that every day. Where they succeed—and where they fail—is in local execution. When we aim for localized global marketing, when we find the thread of that global strategy and pull on what will work in country X, that’s when we start to approach truly global marketing.
Melissa Romo, global head of content and social media at the software company Sage, has spent the last few years delving into the mad world of global marketing strategy and has emerged clutching several content hubs adored by their target (local) audiences. Sage Advice, the brand’s small-business blogging program, started in the US in 2017 and then rolled out across multiple markets (UK, France, Germany, and Spain). It will hit another 12 markets in the next year, and likely another 12 in 2020, according to Romo. And it all began with one idea: unifying disparate approaches to blogging under the company name.
Image attribution: Benjamin Parker
“I do think it’s possible to have a global content strategy—you can write one, and document what it needs to be. I think the much bigger challenge is getting it to actually work in practice,” Romo says.
“Any large company will likely have all of their marketers at some point during the year creating or sourcing content. That could be hundreds of people. And those are just the internal folks: you have to also consider agencies. Content is so pervasive in marketing now that wrangling all that creativity into one global strategy is a big executional hurdle.”
Those hurdles mean you need to have a lot of “flex” in your strategy, says Romo; set it, but don’t be too prescriptive. It’s more about an ethos and a direction than a step-by-step guide you must follow or face a reckoning.
“For example,” says Romo, “globally, there may be a focus on the company’s dominant line of business, but if you have a country for whom that line of business is secondary or non-existent, but something else locally is much more important, you have to allow the content strategy to encompass those local variations.
“And with the demand audiences have for hyper-relevance and authentic messages, anything created from ‘far, far away’ is going to have that feel to it. So really, a global content strategy is actually a bundle of local content strategies that have logical connection points.”
Romo’s team at Sage has been so good at making those logical connection points that they can’t roll out the Sage Advice program quick enough for most markets. Its success has been in that hyper-relevance for the local market—earning more than four million organic pageviews in the first year and winning best blog in the Business Digital & Tech category at the UK Blog Awards. The brand’s aim is for the site to become the most global business-advice blog in the world.
“It’s one of those great, rare things for a global team: to build something your local markets are clamoring for,” Romo says. And she believes it was time spent in planning local execution of the global strategy that underpins the program’s success.
“We did a few things right in the early days of planning this blog,” she says. “We were maniacally focused on architecting a blog that would tap into organic search traffic in ways that Sage has never done before. We set up an editorial strategy that really hit the sweet spot of publishing top-of-funnel stories that tapped into the audiences’ need for advice, but were still relevant to what Sage sells. So we had through-the-funnel thinking in our editorial strategy, and we’ve seen conversion rates of this ‘ownable’ content be as much as six times better than what we call ‘non-ownable’ content, or articles that discuss topics out of our wheelhouse.”
Sage also puts a lot of work into audience identification; that need for hyper-relevance is what keeps Romo up at night. So when it came to the localized marketing strategy for Sage Advice, there were some immediate adjustments that had to be made: substituting Xing for LinkedIn in Germany, for example, and keeping Brazil as an outlier in KPIs because they are “so fanatical about social media they skew everything we do (in a good way!).”
“It’s very easy to turn strategy creation into a creative writing exercise, where you almost craft an imaginary customer and imaginary insights that map against them. It’s difficult to go into every market and truly understand all your segments,” Romo says.
“Of course it can be done, but your organization has to be willing to do two things: to spend money on market research, and wait for the strategy to be created as a result of that research.
“With content, it’s often all about working as fast as possible to stock the shelves with content, and less focus is put on why the content is being created, and is the content really tapping into an information need.”
The groundwork for this global marketing strategy helped ensure that the content to be created down the line would tap into those information needs—both globally and locally.
The other thing Sage’s global marketing strategy does not do is write once and simply translate. Many central marketing teams will create an asset locally—a website, a report, a flyer—and then send it to local markets via a translation company. However, that approach fails to take into account local nuances.
You’ve doubtless heard of brands’ missteps with literal translations of a name or slogan—when “Got Milk?” became “Are you lactating?“ in Spanish, or when Britain’s then third-largest mobile phone operator found itself in the middle of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland because the name “Orange” had a different meaning there.
“If the context of your message isn’t accurate, you risk your business’s content falling flat,” writes Doug Bonderud for Smartling. “Many organizations see this as the core difference between staying local and going global, but in many ways they’re already adapting their material to accommodate domestic variability. There’s an equally important difference, for example, between the shopping habits of west- and east-coast Americans: west-coasters want marketing language that reflects health and fitness values, whereas those on the east coast prefer themes of luxury and enjoyment.
“You already have experience tailoring your brand to niche markets at the local level and ensuring that the language is ‘just right’ to attract consumer interest. Going global is another step forward.”
Think transcreation rather than translation to get your localized global strategy working for you.
I’d been working in a global marketing team for just a few months when I first heard the term “glocal.” Frankly, it sounded ridiculous, but the intention was pure: we needed to think and plan globally, but execute locally. That was easy for us to say from our ivory tower in London, but for those in the ground in Beijing, in Bogota, in Brisbane, in Brussels, it wasn’t so straightforward. It took thinking differently to bring the threads together.
Image attribution: Bagas Muhammad
“Good strategy should be ambitious enough to be globally applicable, be it brand awareness, thought leadership, or lead generation. Growth is a global mindset,” says Jonathan Davies, a marketer from the Netherlands who has worked in several “local branches” of multinational companies.
“Tactics is where locality comes into play. Aside from the obvious language-based discrepancies that can affect things like desired SEO keywords, other factors like local legislation or technological prowess can drastically alter an approach that would work elsewhere.”
Davies uses the very tangible example of direct sales in B2C, a common tactic in North America that backfires spectacularly in some of the Netherlands’ smaller cities.
“I often see people in the streets of less internationalized cities, such as Haarlem, trying to pawn off a newspaper subscription or lottery tickets,” Davies says. “I always thought it didn’t work here because we live in an information age now. With information so freely available, it means product consumption has shifted to demand only, and that’s why such sales tactics didn’t work.
“However, having traveled to the US, Canada, and even Israel, I see these tactics employed to great effect—particularly for cosmetics. The real reason it doesn’t work in the Netherlands is because of the culture. Dutch people value their ‘safe space,’ much more so than countries in the south or east of Europe. Conversation with strangers isn’t valued in your free time, especially when it’s sales-based. Most Dutch people see such intent from a mile away, and shun it with their famous directness, much to the frustration of the often hard-working student in the street.”
Sage Advice shows you can have a global marketing strategy, as long as you’re prepared to work hard on the local execution.
Your general audience may be similar no matter the country—say, teenage girls, or CFOs—but within those segments will be cultural nuances for every country you’re targeting. Think of the hierarchical nature of business in Asia, or differences in access to brands in the West versus the East.
Have your global vision, for sure, but be prepared for the localization to differ country to country. Your plan should not be prescriptive, but instead set a tone for others to follow.
Sage uses content marketing technology to get all their local teams aligned with the global strategy. All their content publishing operations are set up with tags and topics to keep the operation aligned to the strategy.
It’s easy for a marketing leader to set a strategy and tell everyone to stick to it, but if you want to be a dictator, be prepared for extreme variations in success rates. Listen to the local experts, and trust your team to execute your vision.
Says Sage’s Melissa Romo: “Be persistent” with your global marketing strategy.
“Define what you are doing and why you are doing it. That even means defining what we mean when we use the word ‘content,'” she says. “Beautiful content is your company’s feature film, so give people that feeling of epic excitement, of opening night every time you launch something new.
“Do more celebrating than complaining, even when complaining might feel good in the moment! Celebrations and energy around what you’re doing with your company’s storytelling are so important. Content is creativity. Don’t forget the art.”
Discover how Skyword360 helps enterprise brands create and execute a global content marketing strategy. Learn more.
Featured image attribution: Icons8 team