By Ohad Shemen Ariely, Director of Global Business Development at Rewire
Have you ever eaten or passed your food with your left hand or refused a drink when offered to you while having dinner with Indian businessmen? Or have you ever been late to or interrupted a period of silence in a business meeting in China? If you have, this article is for you.
Expanding into new markets is one of the most imminent challenges of any company that wishes to operate globally. There are plenty of considerations to evaluate that have the power to practically determine the final outcome of such a move. From comprehensive market research to the establishment of the relevant business & pricing model, getting familiarized with the local regulations and commercial ecosystem, preparing a product or a service roadmap to fit the new market needs, getting to know your competition, choosing the ideal marketing strategy and much more until launching an MVP.
The risk of embracing the wrong Go To Market strategy might result in a substantial impact on the company — especially for early-stage companies that are vulnerable to such colossal mistakes — as the above mentioned process requires a huge amount of effort and resources. Beyond the theoretical part, there are other measures that can be undertaken by companies to support the new strategy in order to promise their successful move and minimize risks — they hire strategic consultants to build the desired strategy for them (or just to support their decisions), hire local professionals with the relevant know-how and connections and invest enormous amount of money in focus groups and sophisticated analytics in order to promise that everything goes by the plan.
There is one minor — yet still important — measure that most managers and decision-makers in those companies tend to forget after analyzing, modeling and calculating their promising way to a successful and safe outcome — The local culture.
“When in Rome do as the Romans do” — a proverb attributed to Saint Ambrose, back in the 4th century, somewhat stating the importance of acting by the local customs and common practices. My experience has taught me, that understanding the culture and embracing its derived aspects, might turn out to be the “oil in the engine” of any Go-To-Market strategy and has the ability to substantially affect one’s chances to succeed in the new market.
So “should I leave for a year and learn Mandarin…?” Definitely not — but you should however invest time and resources investigating your way through the local customs in the targeted new market, proactively interview locals to get a grasp of the “Do’s and Don’ts” in the relevant market and undertake cultural sensitivity training to address issues such as etiquette, protocol, communication styles and negotiation approaches, that might be the key difference between success and failure.
A few years back, McDonald’s learned this lesson the hard way, after broadcasting a TV ad in China showing a Chinese man kneeling before a McDonald’s vendor and begging him for a discount. The ad was taken off air as begging is considered a shameful act in the Chinese culture and a public uproar has forced the fast-food giant to apologize.
To conclude, a good way to start embracing the take-away from this lesson would be freeing ourselves from our subconscious conception of cultural superiority. Even if brought up in a comic sense, we all tend to consider distant cultures as inferior to ours. We should respect that distinction by acknowledging its existence. Once we manage to eliminate that barrier, all we have left is to learn Mandarin.