In 2016, FT Longitude hosted a thought leadership event to explore how multinationals should tackle the global vs local conundrum. The answer from our panel discussion was clear-cut: this is not an either/or debate. To be successful, CMOs must strive for that all-important balance.
Among marketers, it is a truth universally acknowledged that when it comes to thought leadership, consistency rules. Speaking with one voice – strategically, thematically, verbally – creates a powerful cumulative impression. Clients are reassured that their experience will be the same the world over; the brand is bolstered by content that continually reinforces its values.
But no one is going to argue that what works in London works equally well in Lahore. Different markets have different needs, and marketers must be sensitive to these nuances or risk being ignored (or worse – humiliated). How, then, can CMOs of firms straddling 100 or 150 countries produce coherent thought leadership? Should they impose a content-generation programme from the centre, and push it out to regional markets, or invite local offices to produce content geared specifically to their audiences?
A solution that’s been there all along?
As the discussion progressed a potential solution emerged. Perhaps by doing the essentials of thought leadership right – applying those principles that should be followed whether you’re a single-territory startup or a global plc – you won’t need to agonise over the global/local question at all.
1. Engage the right stakeholders
Our panellists agreed that it is vital to cherrypick the right people and take them with you from the very beginning. Include them from the start, and listen to them throughout.
Recruit the subject-matter and market experts who can help to dig up that all-important point of view, the sales people who will be using the content in the field, and the thematic specialists who can stress-test the thinking. They are your most useful allies and the outputs’ best publicists.
Two approaches emerged in our discussion. You can pick these people from those who ‘get it’ – who understand thought leadership and know what it can achieve. Or there’s the potentially more rewarding method of going after those who don’t get it. Chip away at these reluctant stakeholders, and they might eventually become your fiercest advocates.
With stakeholder buy-in an especially big hurdle for multinational firms, try changing the way you frame the debate. Placing the emphasis on teamwork instead of compromise will reduce apathy and minimise conflict. How can local stakeholders work with the global stakeholders – and vice versa?
2. Define your audience
There was resounding consensus among panel members that any campaign, article or event must start with the client. It is essential to establish what you want your thought leadership to achieve and who exactly you want it to reach – once you’ve done this, you can tailor it to them.
Put your external audience first, and make sure you understand its concerns. Getting hung up on your internal stakeholders and seeing your task solely through an internal lens will produce content that might strike a chord within the four walls of your HQ, but will struggle to have any impact beyond – let alone across geographical borders.
Too often, people write because they want to say something instead of because they have something to say. Starting with your clients’ agendas as opposed with your own, and asking ‘who is going to read this?’ will focus minds and lead to content that is new and relevant – wherever it is consumed.
3. Quality and longevity
All the planning and stakeholder engagement in the world is worth nothing if the outputs aren’t up to scratch, and when the panel discussion moved on to content, two words came up again and again: quality and longevity.
The former has long been a guiding principle for thought leaders. It is about doing less, and doing it really well. And to achieve this, our panel agreed, CMOs must get used to saying no.
The latter speaks to the importance of segmentation and making the content work hard – “bleeding your assets dry,” as one panel member put it – over the course of a campaign. Our panel members were keen to point out, however, that this is a slow-burn approach: the best time to release a particular piece of content might not be immediately – if there’s a newsworthy hook for it in six months, its impact will be greater if you bide your time. Reassure your internal stakeholders that they will see returns, but they will take a while to appear.
From a global/local perspective, segmentation can be a boon: it allows you to chop up the content and use it in different ways, at different times, in different markets. This will maximise its relevance to its audiences. Consistency and sticking to core topics are crucial, but there needs to be flex. Within clearly defined parameters, give local teams the flexibility to adapt content to have the most impact on the audiences that they know best.
The balancing act
Your brand’s values should be the same in Stuttgart, Beijing and Rio, and your content should reflect those values, but consistency needn’t be so rigidly prescriptive that regional nuances are ignored.
And when ceding the necessary degree of freedom to local markets, it will be a lot easier to achieve the right balance of coherence and relevance by sticking to three core principles:
1. Get the right people involved – from the very beginning
2. Listen to your audience
3. Produce fewer outputs, but make them work harder
Because thought leadership created with its audiences in mind is effective wherever those audiences are; well-designed campaigns can be made to work anywhere; and great content, refined with an eye on market relevance, will resonate – globally and locally.