Sunday, 11 August 2013

So Different - Women in the UK and on the Continent

First you notice the hair. British women's hair tends to be cut into geometrical shapes. Even when it's long, there is a blunt, hard line at the end of it. And it will always have been through the straightening iron. Continental women's hair is much softer, it's "Just-so" hair". You never ever see a French women with "salon" hair. It's freshly washed, but definitely not styled. As with the colour - British women love blocky colour, even their highlights (which they love) are mostly blocky beaver stripes. Teased, straightened, dyed. Anything natural is anathema - it doesn't merely look "made up" - it has to look "up for it". Natural is a look absolutely confined to the elderly in Britain.

Teased  hair, teeth bleached white with a blueish tinge, spray tanned, nails with "nail art" - you do occasionally see that look on women in continental towns - but they tend to be sex workers.

So what style do continental women go for? For a start, spray tans and artificial tans aren't necessary. The summers are long, and most people tan easily. Hair is, as I mentioned, natural, straightening irons aren't very popular at all. Teeth are left as they are. Of course most women wear make-up and fake eye lashes are as popular as in the UK (if not quite as long and black) - but they tend not to be combined with glitter eye shadow and fuchsia lip gloss.

Generally there is, I think, on the Continent a horror of looking as if you tried too hard. (Which is invariably the look British women go for - they want to be seen to make an effort, thereby sending a signal to men: I'm up for it.) Clothes emphasize this - it would be totally unacceptable to wear British-style clothes in a (relatively style-conscious) town like say, Munich, Barcelona, or any French city.The cleavage, the "heels", the skirt length, the style, the "body-con"... all wrong. People would stare, and not necessarily in admiration

I'm not saying the one is better than the other. But there is definitely no overlap.

Next: Men.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Where Were You Born? How Old Are You?

I have to confess, those are questions that quite literally make my skin crawl. Questions I will never ever answer. Not because of any vanity hang-ups, I hasten to add - and I can easily prove it when I say I wouldn't even reveal the month I was born in.

I just don't like to give people the chance to stereotype me. Tell somebody your birthday, and they're bound to exclaim "Ah, that makes you an aries (libra, virgo, whatever) then, bit stubborn, are we?" And I really can't stand that sort of thing at all. Somebody once exclaimed "What?? You're from Munich and you don't like beer?!" Err, yes imagine. Except, I'm not "from" Munich, I just happen to live here at the moment. I lived in Edinburgh once, and would you believe it, I don't like whisky.

People's urge to put you in a culturally determined identity box seems to be unquenchable. Born in the 70s?  "Haha, you must like flares" 80s? "All those shoulder pads, I can see that's you". 90s? "Grunge! You like grunge then?" "Born in England? Have a cup of tea, the English like their tea!"

Why oh why does it matter where your mother happened to give birth? Does the umbilical cord tie you to that local hospital forever? Are you meant to have imbibed some tribal thinking in those first few earthly hours? Of course, loads of people are very proud of their place of birth "Yup, Kansas girl me, the Sunshine State", or whatever advertising slogan happens to be attached to that neck of the woods. "Us Yorkshiremen are strong and silent, we call a spade a spade". To which of course the only possible reply is "Oh do shut up please".

I admit, I'm pretty extreme in not wanting to be stereotyped. If possible, I'd like to prevent people from knowing my gender, too. I live in constant fear of coming across something like "Oh you females, you just love babies dont'ya". No, I don't actually - I always fear they might give me some dreadful illness, and I don't like people who only ever sleep and eat.

Also, my attitude to this whole identity and stereotype thing has disadvantages. I don't have c.v. for example, so I can't apply for jobs, and am forced to stay self-employed. Still, it's preferable to listening to some HR person kneading a stereotype dough that has nothing to do with who I am - all on the basis of some arbitrary data.

I am very happy, though, to talk about things that really were formative, and therefore matter. For example: At a young age, my family moved to Holland. A country,culture, language, experience that really had an impact on me. Much more so, than an arbitrary place on the map which happens to be my place of birth

Friday, 2 August 2013

Are British Companies Easy Prey?

They certainly seem to be when it comes to transitioning overseas. As more and more UK companies want to escape from a fairly flat home market into more attractive opportunities in the EU (notably Germany), they are in danger of becomíng victims of ruthless and low-quality service providers intent on making money.

Take translations: Very few British people outside the academic world can speak any other European languages. A British marketing manager intent on entering an EU market will be faced with the daunting task of having all the promotional literature - brochures, information material, newsletters, tags but most prominently websites - translated into a foreign language which he or she will have no clue about. It’s all gobbledygook.

And unfortunately, this is often what the translation reads like, too. If you are a German or French speaker, you can easily check yourself. Bring up any UK website and click the foreign language (flag) button. I was so shocked by one of them - Next Fashion - I actually wrote to the Marketing Manager and told them that their German website was so badly translated, it was almost incomprehensible. Fortunately, they reacted quickly and have now got a much better German website and newsletter.

A badly translated website isn't just an embarrassment. It can do serious damage to a company’s reputation - bearing in mind that it won't be as well-known as in the UK - so will be judged largely by its promotion and presentation.

Of course, the transition into another country is not just about translation. It's a step into a fairly different culture where other priorities, cultural signifiers and different tastes have to be carefully considered. Whilst not as intricate to handle as say, Japanese culture, European countries have their own sensibilities and ideas. For example, over-empasizing the money saving aspect - which is undoubtedly an important promotional tool in Britain - may come across as odd on a website designed for the continental consumer.

It's not uncommon for companies who did inadequate market observation, intelligence and research to fail. Domino's, the pizza company, just had to issue a profit warning because their German operation underperformed. A clear case of the company not having done its homework - and a costly reminder what can happen if you don't.

Here are 5 tips that companies looking to expand abroad should follow to avoid the most common pitfalls:

1. Spend time researching the market you’re looking to enter. Does it really make sense to come in as a new player who is largely unknown, when the market is already saturated?  (pizza delivery is a good case in point).

2. Talk to locals about your offering - website, products, communication collateral, before you actually do anything. Engage a transition specialist to help you negotiate this, they will be happy to improve even small details which count for a lot: Native-speaker consumers will notice anything odd

3. Invest in the highest-quality translations you can manage. This means not chosing any available translation agency but spending time finding a truly bi-lingual person - they're rare, but worth the effort.They will get the tonality, not just the wording right - so your positioning is attuned to local needs, and locals "get it" immediately. Great for business, especially when you're just starting out.

4. Start with small test markets before you go national, use them as learning grounds. Always listen and learn - engage in ongoing market research, qualitative and quantitative.

5. "Continually adjusting" is the recipe for overseas success. No one gets it right first time in foreign markets - there are too many things you might be unaware of. The trick for success is to keep listening, monitoring customer feed-back continually - and then to adjust as quickly as possible. Marks & Spencer got it horribly wrong first time in the 1990s - now they're back with better translated websites, and locally relevant ranges -all of which will translate into healthy topline growth.