No matter how successful a business is in a particular market, if its model does not align with the culture of the people in the new market, the business will be sure to struggle. Unfortunately, when expanding to new markets, companies focus on external macro-environmental factors such as economic, technological, legal, and demographic environments and dedicate minimal effort and budget to researching the social and cultural background.
Many businesses have gone the dinosaur way simply because the target audience was resistant to adopting their value proposition as it meant swimming against the tide. Some scenarios are clear to see. For instance, it is blatantly apparent that an alcohol manufacturer should have no business venturing into the northern regions of Nigeria. There are, however, numerous scenarios that are harder to pinpoint and which the corresponding fallouts have been well documented. China and Asia as a whole have a reputation of being the burial ground for a lot of American businesses simply due to cultural differences, with Home Depot, Tesco, Groupon, and Walmart all still licking their wounds. Let’s take a look at Home Depot.
Home Depot is an American home improvement supplies retailing company that sells appliances, materials, tools, and construction products used in decorating and home improvement. Home Depot ventured into the Chinese market in 2016, hoping to copy and paste a model that had made them successful in America. On the surface, it seems like it was a market it would easily conquer. The Chinese are famed for their ingenuity and a growing population of the middle class and new homeowners.
Home Depot, however, failed woefully after six years of struggling and called it quits by closing seven stores and firing 850 employees. What went wrong here? Home Depot was unable to see the nature of China’s housing market. Many people buy homes for investment and speculation, not to improve. More fatally was the fact that Home Depot tried to bring American notions of DIY to a market where labour was so cheap that most people hired a handyman.
Yuliy Shenfeld, Director of Jiji Africa, oversees a business with a model which seems to fit the African culture like a glove to a hand. Jiji is an online marketplace that allows sellers to post free ads, find buyers online, and then meet offline to complete the business transaction. Jiji, from the very start, attracted a large number of sellers of both new and used goods, thus focusing on both B2C and C2C markets and giving more value and variety to customers.
With all that has been documented, this is not to say innovations should not be introduced to new markets. The world has reached the stage by top business people/manufacturers ignoring dogma, introducing new ideologies, and presenting us with better ways to do things. The focus, however, should be on ‘improvement’ rather than ‘novelty.’ Even with a focus on improvement, the way of life of the people should be well scrutinized to ascertain widespread adoption or abandonment.
This need for consumer culture insights has led to the rapid growth of market research organizations that use various methods to capture their insights. This can range from bespoke community building. A dedicated network of consumers in the community is assembled and probed from time to time. There also are lifestyle immersions where ethnographers take to walking in the shoes of the everyday consumer to understand their day-to-day lives. In-depth interviews, consumer ideation sessions, ‘unfocused’ group sessions, and videography have also been excellent tools used to capture the culture of the people and analyze it with the business model of an institution.
It is highly recommended that a business focuses massive attention on these methodologies before venturing into a new market, no matter how attractive the proposition might appear from a distance. It’s not about who’s bigger, better, brighter, or faster; it’s about who is empowered to leverage the power of culture to optimize an organization’s bottom line. Cross-cultural differences have time and time again been identified as the most significant impediment to successful international ventures and projects. However, these obstacles can be transformed into opportunities with a framework for tackling them head-on.
Yemi Kuti is PR and Communications Manager, Jiji.ng