Author: Konstantin Holtkamp, mediamoss
Companies operating abroad must adapt their communication strategies to other cultures. We spoke to Gilmar Wendt, who is uniquely positioned with his London based consultancy GW+Co to help German speaking companies communicate in Anglo-Saxon business cultures.
What kind of things does a medium-sized company have to consider before venturing a step abroad?
Firstly, one has to consider the cultural differences. Not just in business but in the day-to-day. For example, the German manner is often seen as direct. British people think it’s funny, but at worst it’s seen as rude. Understand the culture, not just the language.
Consider the local market. Often, companies expand on the back of a local contact, or a sales director doing very well in one country. But to scale up needs very careful consideration. You have to ask – is this market a good strategic choice? What do I really know about it?
Consider carefully the partners you will choose. Do they know the market like the back of their hands? Make sure you partner with someone who understands both the local culture and yours. This will save time.
And do not forget that the positioning you have in your home market may not translate. This often happens with Mittelstand companies, but it also happens to the big players. Think of the ill fated entry of Tchibo into the UK, Marks & Spencers into France and Germany or Walmart into Germany.
What should a sustainable branding strategy abroad look like?
That’s an interesting question.
First, you have to be nail your positioning in the new market. Start by taking into account what people already presume. There are many stereotypes about Germans: The positive ones evolve around organisation, engineering and trust. The negative ones question our taste, creativity, fashion and humour. These are just clichés – but, nonetheless, they are ingrained. But you can play it to your advantage. Brands – like comedians – can ‘dial-up’ on their German-ness. Most English people can say ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ without even knowing what it means!
Know your ambition. Do you want to be a German voice on an international stage or an international voice with German roots? Do you even want your nationality to be part of who you are as a brand?
Conduct in depth market research. It doesn’t have to be big, it’s more about having quality conversations with the people who matter and a few trips to get to know the business environment. If you take over a local business, make sure you listen carefully to the employees. They are your best source of insights and knowledge of the local market.
Then, start small with perhaps a test store concept or campaign in order to test-and-learn.
And if you are coming to the UK remember – no disrespect – that it is somewhat ahead of Germany. Branding is no longer just about applying an identity system consistently. It’s about coherence of ‘spirit’ over uniformity of style.
We recently created an employer branding for a big German corporation. It was for a new, agile, international digital business division that was to be the agent of change for the Group. The German mentality is more rigid, so we had to work hard to convince them to allow us to move outside the existing brand guidelines.
We approach brand guidelines like creating recipe books – which allow in-house teams to feel creative. For businesses to grow into new markets we create loveable systems so that the employees are as excited about the journey as the management.
Which communication channels are particularly suitable for the positioning of a foreign company?
I don’t think I can answer that without knowing the context of that business:
Who are the company? What they selling? Is it wholesale or retail? Is it a service or a product? Is it cheap or high-end? Most importantly choose the communications channels that are most relevant to the audience and the desired results.
But get the language right. Recently, we were involved in a digital campaign for a cutting edge technology product from a German-based company. As the lead creative agency, we created high level concepts and briefed the local agencies with examples of what could work. But then we saw the elements they designed and they were written in bad English. A high quality product needs to be presented in high quality language. If you are going on less formal social media channels, funnily enough, the language is even harder to nail.
What are the risks to a foreign company regarding the communication work in an unfamiliar country and culture? Which mistakes should be absolutely avoided?
Don’t be ignorant:
Do not apply your own thinking to a market you don’t know the detail of without testing it first. Many businesses are very clear on the local differences in their home markets, but apply a broad brush stroke to the new. Every German knows the difference between Bavarians and Swabians, but do you know the difference between the Scots, the Welsh and the English?
Don’t underestimate the differences:
In the UK a lot of business works via networking. You build a personal relationship, then you get the chance to deliver (and deliver you must). In Germany, it often is the other way around. To be allowed in, you have to prove your expertise first.
Don’t assume your positioning and messaging can be translated easily:
This is why you need a bi-cultural partner. Know the local market and the competitor’s positioning and never assume it’s the same as back home.
Lidl finally made it in the UK, not by ‘products being cheap’ but ‘shoppers being ‘smart’. The advertising uses British humour and wordplay, it doesn’t feel ‘German’ at all. Its UK fans could easily afford shopping in a high-end organic boutique.
Don’t just apply your own expectations to a different culture:
It’s easy to get a meeting here in the UK. Everyone’s will promise they’ll come back to you, but don’t expect they will. They are just being polite.
On the digital front the Brits are less worried about privacy, so social media is huge. People here tend to see the opportunity, not the risks. I think that’s somewhat different in Germany. You can play the different channels in different ways here.
What are the main challenges foreign companies are frequently confronted with in the UK?
I’ve probably answered most of this already. Think of your business as an immigrant. That means it’s an immigration process. You have to adapt without losing your identity, but it will change you as well.
Find friends and partners who will help you to settle in and make connections.
The UK is a great place to do business. People are willing to listen to your ideas and will give you a chance. I came for a year initially and almost twenty years later I am still here, with a family, a business and a house and garden. I have never regretted it!
Gilmar Wendt is the Principal of GW+Co, the award winning brand consultancy he founded in 2010.
GW+Co help ambitious businesses challenge their sectors through strategic consultancy, brand creation, digital design and employer branding. As a leading B2B brand consultancy their expertise includes working with family businesses and working with large group companies. Furthermore, as a German-led team of European creatives and strategists based in London, GW+Co is uniquely placed to help German speaking businesses communicate in Anglo-Saxon business cultures.
GW+Co’s international clients include PayPal, Ergo Group, Bank of Tokyo, Mitsubishi UFJ (MUFG) as well as family businesses such as Zumtobel Group (lighting) and BGL Group (insurance).