Appealing to global tastes

In 2017, Apple launched a special-edition iPhone 7 in more than 40 countries. The brushed aluminum back of the device gleamed red – contrasting sharply with the minimal whites and blacks that have long been synonymous with the product. The colour celebrated Apple’s partnership with (RED), a charity that aims to wipe out HIV/AIDs. A portion of the iPhone 7’s sales would go towards the Global Fund. But in China, where the product is manufactured, these intentions were kept very quiet.

Good brands can transcend their name, their logo, and even their products. They can represent a set of values that marketers can then champion. When these values are consistently conveyed, they create a powerful impression in the minds of consumers. But to adapt to globalised markets, brands have to shift their approaches, and these shifts are often most pronounced in China.

China holds a more conservative approach to sex than most western cultures. Material deemed pornographic is systematically censored in Chinese social media on a greater scale than posts critical of the state. Condom vending machines throughout Beijing were criticised for being too loud, which discouraged use. And when HIV/AIDS first appeared in China in 1985, it was initially characterised as a consequence of contact with the West. While there has been progress in removing stigma associated with the virus, Apple still considered it too taboo, and opted to decouple the device’s association with (RED) for Chinese consumers.

The charity (RED) says they chose red because it is the colour of emergency, and therefore associated with global health threats like HIV/AIDS. But red is also the most popular colour in China, where it represents happiness, success and good fortune. By removing the association of the iPhone with the virus, Apple quietly left Chinese consumers to imbue the colour choice with their own associations.

McDonald’s, too, have tried to alter their approaches according to what they think different global customers would like. But they have shown only too well how difficult appeasing global cultures can be.

As a new promotion, McDonald’s in Singapore introduced miniature toys depicting the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac calendar. But in the primarily ethnic Chinese nation they decided to replace the pig toy with a cupid, so as not to offend Muslim customers.

The move backfired. Many customers were upset they wouldn’t be able to buy the toy that went with their birth year. The Muslim community wasn’t very happy either, as they weren’t consulted on the decision. Sociologist Daniel Goh said that the lack of consultation meant McDonald’s had “assumed Muslim sensibilities, which amounted to a form of self-censorship”.

Blogger, lich_king also criticised the move, citing an unfair priority of Muslims over Hindus, as the bull toy remained despite Hinduism prohibiting the consumption of beef. The online ire was so great that the chain back-flipped, adding the pig toy back to the promotional line up. But the damage was done.

Rajesh Chhabara wrote on the CSR Works blog that “McDonald’s’ lack of cross-cultural understanding points to a common trend among multinational companies who often neglect to deploy corporate responsibility managers with local insight in Asia.”

Indeed, companies who guide global development with sophisticated local insights can garner huge success. Kraft Chief Executive Irene Rosenfeld successfully expanded the power of the company’s various business units around the globe, contending that business decisions shouldn’t all be made by the employees at the American headquarters.

Catering to local tastes, Kraft successfully introduced dark chocolate in Germany, instant coffee in Russia and iced tea in the Philippines. But they weren’t having much luck in China. Oreos sales had been flat for several years, at a time when they were the one of the most popular dessert items in America. Shawn Warren, Vice President of Marketing for Kraft, assigned his team to an extensive research project to inform their strategy. They learnt that their product was too sweet and too expensive for Chinese consumers. They developed prototypes for a reduced-sugar version, and introduced packages containing fewer Oreos to be sold at a cheaper price.

Another notable revelation was China’s growing thirst for milk. Kraft began a subsequent campaign to educate Chinese consumers about the American tradition of pairing milk with cookies. Ambassadors rode around Beijing handing out Oreos on bicycles with wheels resembling the treat. Oreo-themed basketball games were held to reinforce the action of dunking the cookies in milk, and television commercials featuring kids enjoying Oreos with milk were broadcast across the country.

After the development of a wafer stick version of the product, Kraft had truly adapted for a Chinese audience, and doubled its Oreo revenue in the country. That’s the way the cookie crumbles.


I smell a rat

Woof! In a moment of shock, that was all I could say.

As People and Culture Manager at Pesel & Carr, my role has transformed over the past few months. I’m not able to rest my head on the lap of coworkers at the office, or bark to alert them that mail has arrived. Confined to the house, I’m reduced to even longer naps, and my pestering is restricted to Barbara, rather than a full office of delighted colleagues.

But occasionally something happens that begs my attention. I monitor Barbara’s Zoom meetings and noticed something suspicious in a colleague’s background. His office space seemed to reside in an area with a stunning view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Hmm, I didn’t think international travel was permitted at the moment. Also, America inhabits a different time zone, the sun should not be visible. I barked these questions at Barbara, and she informed that the background is virtual, a playful feature of Zoom.

Hmm, I growled again. What is he hiding? In between naps, I kept a close eye on this colleague, until finally, all was revealed. In a moment of technological malfunction, the backdrop disappeared, and the truth appeared in its place. A working space littered with paper, rubbish, dishes, and I may or may not have even caught sight of a mouse! The colleague quickly jumped to reapply the virtual background, but the damage was done, I had seen it all.

WFH does not mean working from hell. Treat your desk and working area with respect, as you presumedly did when you were in the office – and prevent offending onlookers.

It will probably help improve your work ethic too!

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