Global marketing confronts the digital age: Beedie research

Oct 24, 2012

In March of 2011, in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan, Atlanta-based insurance giant Aflac Inc. was forced to confront a marketing fiasco with global implications. The voice of their famous Aflac duck, comedian Gilbert Gottfried, had used his Twitter account to make tasteless jokes about the natural disaster that wiped out entire cities on Japan’s northeast coast.

The online backlash against Gottfried’s social media outburst – and ultimately Aflac – was swift and forceful in the United States, but the repercussions were even greater in Japan, where the company insures one in four households.

To the company’s credit, a well-crafted public relations and social media response – along with the swift firing of Gottfried – quelled what could have been an overseas marketing (and financial) disaster – one that was triggered by poor comedic taste and the power of social media.

But the Aflac story is representative of a greater trend in marketing today. Today’s global companies confront new challenges and opportunities borne of an environment where digital media and empowered customers rule the day – across countries, continents and time zones.

A new study from Simon Fraser University, entitled “Marketing meets Web 2.0, social media, and creative consumers: Implications for international marketing strategy”, explores this new reality for managers generally and for international marketers in particular.

Published in the August issue of Business Horizons, it was authored by Leyland Pitt, Kirk Plangger and Daniel Shapiro from SFU’s Beedie School of Business, and Pierre Berthon from Bentley University’s McCallum Graduate School of Management.

As the study notes, today’s global marketing environment is littered with success and disaster stories for many well-known brands. However, all tend to have one thing in common: the shift in power away from the firm toward individuals and communities.

The authors maintain that marketing managers need to understand the nuances of the aforementioned three key areas: Web 2.0, social media and creative consumers. Web 2.0 is the technical infrastructure that enables the social phenomenon of collective media and consumer-generated content. The latter – social media and creative consumers – are distinguished by their difference in focus. Social media can be thought of as focusing on content, and creative consumers on the creators of that content.

Beyond the understanding of the digital media landscape, a big challenge for would-be global marketers in this arena is that not all countries share the same preferences for specific social media channels.

“There is evidence of a relationship between cultural norms and values and the relative interest in a social media site across different countries,” argue the researchers.

Using data from Google searches, they showed that relative interest in particular social media differs markedly across countries. As examples, Facebook and LinkedIn are very popular in the United States, India and South Africa, but are less so in Japan, which gravitates towards homegrown venues such as mixi and GREE in addition to Twitter.

“From an international marketing strategy perspective, this means that firms cannot follow a one-size-fits-all or standardized approach when it comes to social media usage. A company will need to customize the social media aspects of its global marketing strategy to fit and accommodate national differences.”

To help international marketing strategists, the researchers offer five starting points for harnessing social media and creative consumers in international marketing strategy:

  1. Social media is a function of the technology, culture and government of a particular country.
  2. In the age of social media, local events seldom remain local.
  3. In the age of social media, general issues seldom remain general; that is, macro issues tend to be (re)interpreted locally.
  4. The actions and creations of creative consumers tend to be a function of the technology, culture, and government of a particular country.
  5. Technology tends to be historically dependent; that is, technologies in different countries evolve along unique trajectories due to inertia rather than because they are the optimal solution.


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