Dec 16, 2009

Personal Is the New Local

Posted by: John Orme In: In Focus

Ban the ‘G’ Word – Personal Is the New Local

By John Orme

Partner and Executive Vice President, Porter Novelli China

President of Porter Novelli partner agency Shunya International

Next time you find yourself facing slide 42 of a really boring PowerPoint presentation, here’s something to think about: try to remember the date, the place and the look on the face of the last person who triumphantly stated: “…and our strategy is ‘Think global, act local!’” You may even have heard it just earlier in the presentation, or it may be coming up soon.  Worse still, Heaven forbid, you yourself may the person who said it most recently.

So let me break this to you brutally: the ‘TGAL’ concept has had its day, it’s way past its ‘use by’ date.  In fact, after many years of struggling with it I can say categorically that it should NEVER have even seen the light of day in the first place. It has always put the emphasis the wrong way around. It has seduced people into thinking that the world could suddenly transform itself into a single, coherent global market with local variations.  Experience has proved this to be nonsense. In too many cases, this flawed logic drove multinationals to attempt to force ‘one size fits all’ strategies into a patchwork of markets with different cultural, social and economic drivers, inevitably leading to dismal conclusions.

TGAL has led to years of wasted resources and off-the-scale frustration for legions of sales, marketing and communications teams in worthy, well-intentioned companies. Great products have been shoe-horned into markets where they never stood a chance of fitting.  Corporate reputations have been woefully damaged in countries where they could have brought great benefit.

Sometimes my working life feels as if it’s been a mission to save business from the folly of TGAL. Ten years ago, together with Porter Novelli colleagues in Europe, we worked hard at turning it into something more relevant and helpful.  We held to the principle that local planning based on a deep understanding of the market voice should always drive business strategy.  Fitting it all together, we developed a process of ‘Plan Local, Aggregate Global, Act Local,’ or PLAGAL if you will.

PLAGAL means starting by generating local market insights and knowledge.  These can then lead to national, sometimes regional, strategies that are relevant and effective. This is how impact and breakthrough are created. The ‘Aggregate Global’ element is primarily about looking for efficiencies: ensuring that commonalities are optimized by sharing best practices, templates, tool kits and other resource-saving techniques, ensuring that overlaps and wastage are stripped out of collective plans.

After working in China for the past two years, two factors have convinced me more than ever that the logic of PLAGAL is sound, but it needs to be updated.

First, China really forces you to think about distance, diversity, commonality and individuality.  It’s one country but it has more than 50 different ethnic groups spread across a land mass the size of an average continent.  A single time system spans what should be about eight normal time zones.  There’s one written language but many mutually-incomprehensible dialects using it. Marketing and media planners are driven crazy by the proliferation of consumer demographic patterns and sub-segments shaped by infrastructure and terrain as much as by culture and disposable income.

The second factor is the extraordinary way in which digital and mobile technologies have infiltrated and transformed the life of many Chinese - certainly most of the relatively affluent Chinese that international marketers care about. As with most Chinese phenomena, the statistics are mind-boggling. China has already overtaken the U.S. for the number of people online, with more than 200 million Chinese ‘netizens’. Yet even now Internet penetration in China is only around 20 percent of the total population. That means a lot more would-be consumers are still yearning to sit in front of persuasive screens.

Now put those two factors together – a highly diverse nation embracing interactive communications technologies with a phenomenal and rapidly adaptive appetite. What do you get? Perhaps surprisingly for a Communist state, you get the rise of individuals: individual consumers with 3G mobile phones and laptops with broadband access. Unless marketers can really get their heads into the lives, motivation, ambitions, influencers and behavioural triggers that shape these individuals who defy normal demographic segmentation, they will continue to shoot wide of the target. Personal is the new local.

Enlightened, persistent marketers such as P&G tend to get it, and spend much time and effort working out how to reach and talk to individual mothers in a Tier 4 town (deep in China’s central and western hinterland) who still wash the family’s clothes on a rock in a stream. They know their brands have to be about access and availability as well as product performance and consumer benefits.

So please forget the dreaded ‘Thing global, act local’. Even our clumsy ‘Plan local, aggregate global, act local’ is out of date. The new thinking must start ‘Plan Personal……’

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