BEWARE THE cultural outsider…

The Emperor's New Clothes - (2) - procession

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There are many benefits to being an outsider, especially when working on culturally specific brand development strategies.

An outsider has a more objective view. Seeing things for the first time he can perceive the issues at a simple and fundamental level because subconscious conditioning and politics are not brought into play. Free of the received wisdoms he has greater chance of revealing new paradigms.

The same qualities, in fact, that allowed the little boy to see the emperor’s underwear…

But if being on the outside of a problem has its benefits, there is also a strong argument that says culturally sensitive projects should be undertaken by experts with ‘local knowledge’; that an ‘outsider’ will miss the subtlety and nuance that you can only be achieve through decades of immersion; that an outsider will only deliver a superficial analysis.

Which is right? It’s a common debate within the international marketing community and it’s hard to know exactly where the answer lies.

I’ve worked in many markets, from Japan and Russia to Africa and Brazil and I’ve conducted strategic marketing projects and run focus group and ethnographic studies in all sorts of unlikely locations, with varying degrees of success.  The output of some were indeed superficial, whilst in others the insights and the strategies we developed were revolutionary and game changing.

So my take on the ‘local versus outsider’ debate boils down to one of ‘horses for courses’ with the quality of the outcome being determined less by the nationality or immersion of the individual as by the nature of the project, the insights being sought and the type of consumers researched. Locally sourced ‘experts’ generally can’t resist showcasing their specialist knowledge but may be hopeless at identifying the crucial insight. International ‘experts’ on the other hand can often pass over key issues in their desire to aggregate their findings across a number of markets. At the end of the day it all comes down to the skill and sensitivity of the individual conducting or supervising the research and has far less to do with their background or cultural orientation.

Eyebrows were raised when I became the first non-hispanic, non-American planning director of an hispanic / US ad agency. Some secretly (and others less secretly) questioned my ability to understand the peculiarities of such a unique cultural situation. Given the different types of audience that makes up the ‘hispanic’ audience – from 1st generation immigrants, through to  completely assimilated 4th generation Americans who can’t speak Spanish, yet still consider themselves Hispanic – there was some reason to doubt my hiring.

As Juanin Reid, then Associate Director of Strategic Planning and Research, The Bravo Group said when I first arrived at her agency: “When Graham first joined we all thought: “Oh no, here comes another non Hispanic to tell us how much he knows about Hispanics”. To everyones surprise, Graham was different. He listened, he got to know and understand and applied his years of insightful research to unearth truths about the market which we all then applied successfully to our client partners.”

Sounds good? But then I always knew I could do the job. I’d previously found insights about women’s health issue without ever being a woman, or understood the world of a young child looking for help without being a child, or even decoded the needs of Saudi soccer fans without being a Saudi or particularly in to soccer, so I knew I could empathise with Hispanics in the US whatever their issues. In fact, as a Brit in New York and something of an outsider myself, I had more in common with my audience than many of the Americans I worked with!

During my time in New York advertising I helped win the Wrigley account with insights into acculturated hispanic youth that we labelled Nuevo America, steered Hellman’s Real Food campaign to be less about the general market’s approach of ‘good simple food’ and more to do with the culturally relevant ‘celebration of eating’, and, most controversially, highlighted and championed the heroic nature of the Hispanic migrant worker for Tecate. Yet, despite all this success, what I initially failed to factor in to my analysis was not the complexity of the cultural issues we were dealing with, but something more prosaic; namely the inherent  reluctance of clients to listen to someone from outside their culture. Call it pride if you want, or prejudice, or put it down to a simple matter of ‘not invented here’. The fact is, some clients find it hard to listen to someone they perceived to be ‘Not One Of  Us.’ Good ideas can be quickly dismissed through conscious or unconscious prejudice especially if they challenge, as they will tend to, the cultural status quo. This isn’t because the ideas are wrong or invalid, but because of the subtle realpolitik governing the acceptance of those ideas.

So what’s the lesson? Simply that, when dealing with cross-cultural projects it’s always wise to be conscious of the realpolitik. It’s no coincidence that the role of the diplomat in international relations is considered a high art. The same skills are of equal importance when developing cross-cultural marketing strategies.

If this situation rings bells with you, then I suggest you beware, for, as the little boy discovered on humiliating the emperor, you might end up in the dungeon. The benefit of being the ‘outsider’ comes with a rather large caveat because, let’s face it, no-one likes an arrogant shit taking a cursory look at your cherished culture and telling you what it means!

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