Communication Matters - our blog on trends and events


Global companies need to remember that the United States is a foreign country, too.

Years ago, a U.S. statesman was mediating peace talks between Arab and Israeli counterparts. But the talks weren’t going well. In exasperation, the American statesman threw up his hands and said, “Can’t we all get along like good Christians?”

It might be good for a laugh now – the diplomat from Washington clearly did not think about the fact he was talking to Muslims and Jews – but it wasn’t funny at the time.

And of course such gaffes aren’t limited to governments. In every country around the world, people can tell stories about U.S. corporations that made big mistakes there. Those companies didn’t know the culture, language, or history. Those companies thought that they way they operated in the U.S., was they way they could operate everywhere else too.

American parochialism, it seems, knows no bounds. Or boundaries. But keep in mind that we here in the United States have stories about foreign companies, too.

The fact is that there are increasing numbers of global companies that are based elsewhere around the world and which are targeting the United States as a growth market. For example, some of the largest alternative-energy companies in the world, sensing the rising interest here in solar and wind energy, are moving to seize growth opportunities in the United States.

Global companies coming here need to be careful not to make the same mistakes – or even worse errors – that U.S. companies have made abroad. After all, the United States is a foreign country, too. And just because you may know a lot of Americans, doesn’t mean you know America.

The reason this is on my mind is that a European company asked our opinions about “Buy America.” Does that mean, they wondered, that Americans won’t buy from them. It does not.

But as is the case when doing business in any other country, there is much that global companies need to understand about the United States, and factor into any marketing and communications programs aimed at audiences in this country. Here is what this means for global companies:

  1. It costs more. Whatever the budget may be for marketing and communications programs in other nations, is irrelevant. It is going to cost more here. This often shocks foreign corporations. Here are two factors to keep in mind. First, if this country is important to you, it is important to your competitors and they will be here too. And domestic competitors will do whatever it takes to protect their market. Consumers or companies to which you want to market and sell your products and services here, have what can look to be limitless choices. Why should they pick you? And how do you even get through the inordinate clutter of marketing and communications messaging that bombards everyone everyday in this country, to reach them at all. You have to be bold and creative to differentiate yourself. That takes budgets. Second, this is an expensive place to do business no matter where you are or what you do. Of course, it is because consumers and companies have so much money that you want to be in this market.
  2. You need Facebook. It doesn’t matter what you’re trying to sell here. It doesn’t matter if you are business-to-consumer or business-to-business, you aren’t going to reach much less persuade your various audiences if you are not on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other social media. If you want to reach people here, you’ve got to get into the social networks, because that’s where people talk to each other. Here is what I mean. If you want to sell anything to women, keep in mind they often make purchasing decisions based on word of mouth from other women. Unsurprisingly, women look to blogs written by other women. The emergence of “Mommy Blogs”has created growing sales opportunities for companies that get good reviews by mothers in these blogs. People believe other people who have similar interests, more than they believe anyone else. More than any other factor, the rise of such ultra-specific demographic segments explains the popularity of social media here in the US.
  3. New York and LA, are not the USA. A friend of mine in Moscow once told me that there is Moscow, and then there is Russia. They are not, he said, the same. The same holds true here. New York and Los Angeles are among the biggest cities in the world. But New York and LA are not the USA. In fact, across this country there often is considerable bias from and toward these two cities. Every communications professional here knows the story of a New York public relations professional who visited a client in Memphis and then wrote on a social network that he had no idea how people could live there. That did not  endear him to the client. The truth is that how you transact business and how you conduct communications in these two cities on either coast is likely going to be much different than how you do so elsewhere in the 3,000 miles between them. When you leave New York or Los Angeles for other cities, leave those big cities entirely out of your business and communications strategies elsewhere.
  4. This country is so big, it is small. Nothing really is close to anything else here. It’s a big country. Because it is so large, it is really a small country. There are a number of well-known regions such as New England, or the Deep South. Even these regions are so large that within each one there are smaller areas where linguistic and cultural differences can be immense. If I drive two hours east from where I live and visit Pittsburgh, people there are different. We may speak the same language, but we have much different idioms and expressions. When you target individual regions of this country, or states or cities, you need to devote time to understand how each is different, and how each views itself from all the others. Think about this. If American businessmen are expected to eat chicken feet when they attend a business banquet in China, what are Chinese businessmen – or those from any other part of the world – expected to eat at such dinners here? That banquet menu would be different in every single city across this country.
  5. You, and the jobs you offer, are welcome. When experts talk about the economic crisis of the past few years, they say that this time it’s different. They’re right, but there have been subtle shifts that are positive for global companies that conduct business here, particularly those with manufacturing facilities in the United States. In the last downturn to rival this one, in the early 1980s, there was such xenophobia about jobs going overseas that one of the most popular automotive bumper stickers read “Hungry? Eat Your Imported Car.” But this time it really is different. The unemployment rate would be 3-5% higher if not for jobs at US operations of global companies. That translates into tens of thousands of jobs for Americans. And people here understand and appreciate that fact. This is an unusual moment in time when global companies can seize this good will through discrete community relations programs that focus on every stakeholder in their communities – politicians, universities, corporations, neighbors, everyone. Global companies, many of which have kept low profiles because of protests in the past, cannot afford to waste this opportunity to establish or enhance strong relationships in the communities where they have operations and employ people. There will not be another chance like this one.
  6. But you still need to be prepared for problems. The speech with which the “acceleration” crisis overtook Toyota is startling and frightening. The most immediate lesson is that when any corporation faces a crisis here, the company must respond immediately or it will lose control of the situation. That does not just mean lost sales, it means possible lawsuits and investigations. What global companies need to know about conducting business here is the importance of concomitant risk and crisis management strategies. Global companies acquired manufacturing facilities here only to discover they became liable for environmental issues related to those facilities – even if there has been remediation of the facility and the surrounding soil or water. You need to have in place a risk management strategy for legal protection, and a crisis management strategy for reputation management. This is as important, perhaps more so, than any other component of your marketing and communications strategy in the United States.
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