At PricewaterhouseCoopers, I travel the globe and talk every work day to partners and staff from many of the more than 150 countries and territories where we operate. U.S.-based colleagues and friends ask why there was such anti-Iraq war sentiment in many parts of the world. I am often puzzled by their question-almost as much as they are by my answer.
The anti-Iraq war sentiment is only a piece of the problem, I tell them, and it sounds temporary. We face a graver, long-term issue of anti-Americanism. It is building not just in far-off "axis of evil" countries but in places we view as close allies: England, France, Germany and Japan, among others.
This is much subtler and has greater implications than the launch of a Mecca Cola as an alternative to U.S. soft drink brands. This is about growing disdain for the overbearing way in which we Americans are seen to be operating-not just politically, but in everyday business.
I ask colleagues outside the U.S. why there is a sense of anti-Americanism. They are surprised, and happy, that I ask their opinions. They say they've never met an American even aware they had opinions, let alone one willing to hear what they see as the weaknesses in our otherwise perfect culture.
Americans are generally viewed as enthusiastic, optimistic and energetic. How we operate is not necessarily wrong, but we appear to others to act as if "we always know what's right." For example, American business people lead a lifestyle based on having every minute filled. My European counterparts are overwhelmed by my let's-cut-the-chit-chat-and-get-down-to-business approach. They want to probe issues very intensely and get to know me personally over a more leisurely lunch-and want me to truly try to incorporate their concerns in my plans.
With Korean colleagues, I have found myself impatient and confused on conference calls. Since most Americans have a strong command only of English, it becomes the default language for conference calls with my Asian colleagues (even when I am the only American on the call). Some colleagues truly need an American to talk more slowly, to repeat several times what's being said and to use descriptions that relate to their experience. To say Americans have little patience for managing a call in this manner is an understatement.
Here are pointers for us business ambassadors.
* Know the culture you are traveling to-even if you've been going there for years. Search engines provide access to tremendous cultural overviews as well as recent local news.
* Plan on taking more time than you think necessary to explain your agenda, for colleagues to digest your proposals and for leisurely activities, such as dinner or lunch.
* Remember language is a very big advantage for you. Without being condescending, make points slowly and clearly. Stop often to make sure everyone understands, and make sure you know the difference between comprehension and agreement.
* Follow up on points made by colleagues, and explain why you will or will not incorporate them in your plans. Really think through the reasons. Make sure they are strategic, and that you are not discounting colleagues' points because it's convenient to do so.
* Finally, be culturally sensitive. Realize and celebrate other points of view and build consensus. Avoid dictating the outcome.
ads and local culture
As for marketing plans, long-held views dictate consistent brand and advertising applications are paramount. If we do need to look at markets for consistency, we might still pay attention to local culture. This is not new advice, you say? Well, I am often struck that in markets such as Brazil, France and Thailand some of the best-known American brands still use the same tag lines and images as they do in Topeka or New Orleans. It is almost as if these brands and, as a result, America, are not even trying to understand the rest of the world.
So what, you say; we are successful! We tend to base this on knowing the sales we currently have vs. not realizing the full sales potential of being culturally sensitive.
My firm encourages connected thinking that, I believe, helps counter these perceptions of American business people. I try to bring together a cross-section of global representatives as part of the development and implementation team on even small marketing and branding projects. Coming to consensus is not easy and sometimes not possible. But listening carefully can help ease a project internally or achieve the desired outcome externally in a local market.
Through our own behavior, subtle changes in how we run meetings and in the way we launch brands or marketing efforts, we can all work for our companies and for our country, as well.
Michael Kelley is partner, global advertising & branding, PricewaterhouseCoopers, New York.