Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The World's Local …......

If I had to give an opinion on what I thought was one of the world's best advertising campaigns in recent years, I'd have to say it is HSBC's (Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation), “The World's Local Bank.” This simple slogan not only made good advertising – but it was also a beautiful business strategy. This London based bank showed that it understood the way the world was going, namely the old fashioned human desire to deal with people like you but at the same to deal with someone who knew the world.

This HSBC campaign reminds me of one of the more commonly discussed topics of university days – namely the issue of “glocalisation.” This idea was simple – globalisation is here to stay and the world will only get smaller thanks to modern communications like the internet. However, as the world gets smaller people would get more attached to their local communities. Proponents of the “glocal” theory argue that if businesses want to thrive, they need to be both global and local.

Doing this is trickier than it sounds. HSBC succeeded in displaying this in its advertising campaign. They were so successful at it that I never realised that HSBC was a Colonial British Bank until they took over Midland Bank back in the early 1990s. As a child, my dad banked with HSBC and I always saw them as being from Hong Kong and therefore Hong Kong Chinese. Seeing a White Briton as a CEO was something of a shock to me. Unfortunately, outside HSBC I can't think of a global business that has been successful at making itself local. Why is that so?

I think the answer is pretty simple. We live in a world where “Globalisation” is the buzzword. If you're not “Global” or at least “Regional” in everything you do, you're going to be regarded as something of a “bumpkin.” If you live and opperate in a small place like Singapore, you need to have a somewhat reasonable claim to being “global” or at least “regional” in your outlook. Singapore on its own is such a small market that even the big multinationals don't treat the budgeting for the local market seriously. Luckily, Singapore is regional headquarters and regional budgets are set from Singapore – so Singapore based business do have a chance at fighting for Asia-Pacific or South Asian budgets.

Its not just businesses that are going “global.” Thanks to the 'internet' any clown can be “global.” I've bashed out this blog in Singapore over the last six years. While my audience is primarily Singaporean, I've had readers from the USA, UK, parts of Europe and even darkest Africa. I don't need to be part of a big publishing company to be read around the world.

There's no doubt that globalisation has on the whole been a good thing. I live in Asia, which is at the time of writing the ONLY part of the world with any money. The Asian growth miracle is a product of globalisation. It started with the four NICS (South Korean, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore) and today its spread to the giants of China and India. The success story has been simple – we opened up ourselves to global talent, competition, expectations etc. Our companies make and service according to global rather than local standards.

India comes to mind as an example as a country that has benefited from being “global.” I remember a time when the only thing you could do with anything coming from India was to place it in New Age Shrine and chant endlessly around it. In a space of less than three decades, India is moving up the ladder and today, people take Indian companies very seriously. Everyone knows about IT and call centres. However, India is more than that. The American FDA approves an ever increasing amount of drugs based on clinical research done in India.

How is it that a large, underdeveloped nation managed to become a serious player in a number of brain industries? The answer is simple – the brain bits of India is highly open to the “global” grid while the bits of India that are continuing to fail are still stuck in “provincial” mud.

Globalisation is not just a business idea. Its helped raise the standard of life in other aspects too. The great hope in Asia is that the major Asian Giant, China, will be unable to return to the brutal days of Maoist dictatorship. While China remains a Communist Dictatorship in many ways, the Communist Party Chief's of today cannot turn the clock back – too many Chinese people have lived the way the rest of the world does and nobody envisions the people allowing those in power to turn the clock back.

While being “global” is undoubtedly a good thing, there is such a thing of being damaged by being so global that you forget the local. I think of the “dot.com” boom that went spectacularly bust in 2000. What happened?

Simple – we got so caught up in the hype of the internet and being “global” that we forgot about our “real” presence. I look at myself as an example. This blog entry will be read by people beyond Singapore. I've arranged for clients to be interviewed in foreign lands without leaving Singapore. While I can do things beyond Sinapore's shored – I have to remember that I remain physically present in Singapore and therefore my “real” existence remains within the local Singapore context.

Now, let's translate this into something larger. Marketing is filled with examples of how global brands with their power of global budgets, expertise etc etc have become unstuck when they've assumed that the locals will abandon their culture just to be “global.”

One of my favourite examples is the Ford “Nova,” which failed miserably in the Latin America market. It took some bright spark to realise that “No – Va” in Spanish is “No-Go” - not exactly the message you want to convey to car buyers - “Buy my “No Go” car!”

There are other examples. One good Asian example is Jollibee, a Fillipino fast-food joint which prevented McDonalds from conquering their local market by simply appealing to local taste.

Americans are particularly guilty of disregarding “local” sensetivities. In a way, you can't blame them for it. People around the world have an incredible “love” for things American. Perhaps you could say its thanks to Maddison Avenue but America and American cultural icons have found a way of sticking into our psyche.

However, as much as the rest of the world loves things America, we don't exactly want to lose our local culture either nor do we want Americans overwhelming us telling us how to run our lives – something which has become especially true with the recent financial crisis. I mean do you really want the people who screwed up the world by hidding and playing roulette with your money telling you about how to manage your money?

When Americanisation, which is a lot of ways the same thing as “globalisation” gets too overwhelming – the locals fight back and they can win.

This was brought home to me at a recent work-shop on Afghanistan, organised by Singapore's Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS).

One of the most interesting (I use the term politely) was a talk given by Mr Muhammad Sabir Siddiqi, Director Development and Public Awarness, Afghanistan. The poor man had the unenviable task of admitting that the current Afghan government and its international allies (USA and its NATO allies) were losing the propoganda war against the Taliban.

The question is simple – How? If there's anyone you should be able to beat in a propoganda fight – it should be the Taliban. You are talking about a group of religious thugs who spent nearly a decade setting the entire country back by several decades by banning any form of communication with the outside world as “Un-Islamic.” The Taliban are the very people who held mass executions (read stonnings) for things as simple as “witch craft” and they had a habit of beating up girls (read throwing acid) who had the audacity to go to school. This is the type of brand equity that usually gets you barred for life from people's toilet bowls.

By comparison, you have the Afghan government and its American allies who have the experience of Maddison Avenue behind them. America's brand equity is “pursuite of happiness.”

I asked Mr Siddiqi how it was possible for the brand equity of the Taliban (read – murderous thugs) was beating the Afghan government and its American patron (read – sweet hot blonde). His answer was - “The Taliban and its backers know the system in Afghanistan.”

I think the situation goes beyond communications. However, Mr Siddiqi made a very valuable point. The Afghan government of Hamid Karzai and its American backers disgregarded local sensitivities. They invested heavily in things like internet and TV campaigns in a country that had no internet. This might have worked in the US or Europe – but in Afghanistan?

By contrast, the Taliban communicated through the Mosque and the Maddrasah's. They went out to meet the people. They also learnt how to become very effective users of modern communications like the Inernet and TV.

Like it or not, the group that most sensible people would have imagined should have been flushed into the toilet bowl of history have made a “come back” and they've now set up an office in Qatar with the full blessing of the Americans.

How did this happen? Simple – the Taliban were open to using global technologies but remembered the local. Unlike the American backed Karzai government, they slowly rebuilt their base from the bottom up rather than trying to impose anything from the top-down.

I remember a local inventor telling me his frustrations in dealing with a local authority in Singapore. He describes how he provided a solution to them and they told him, “No one else in the world does it the way you do?” His reply was “nobody else has the unique needs that we do.”

Businesses and governments should be global. However, they ignore the local needs. At best this is expensive. At worst – we get a situation where the likes of the Taliban can make a “come back.”

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