Two communications professionals, one in France and one in the United States, compare notes about cross-cultural challenges and perspectives in their domain.
What do you see as the most common communications pitfalls for European companies dealing with the American market?
It can happen that European companies are tempted to tailor their image and business approach to what they perceive to be American business practice and values—this, with a view to overcoming cultural differences and increasing their appeal. However, I believe it is more important for European companies to stay true to their own purpose, culture and brand image. In terms of communications, this means ensuring consistent quality and messaging in line with one’s stated values. There is great beauty and value in diversity, and each culture has noteworthy strengths. Companies are better off making the most of their special national and corporate strengths. Presented in the right light, those strengths will be recognized for their true value.
Sometimes those dealing with Americans see them as monolithic culturally and we are anything but. There are always exceptions, but in general, Midwesterners tend to be process oriented, while Easterners are focused more on results than means. Social graces are important in the South, and less of a focus in the North.
The US market is a reflection of this multiculturality. In our business — large complex engineering projects — no two client jobs are the same and nor are two clients.
In the B2B sphere, there are two aspects to the sales approach: the marketing and branding materials, and the human interaction. The branding is driven strongly by our corporate values, which I am a strong believer in. If client values intersect with yours, it’s a match. If they do not, it’s possible that you should walk away. The human interaction aspect is more fluid. Our business is very much relationship driven, as It’s important for our clients to know that we understand their needs. In these interactions regional specificities can absolutely come into play and one can even make costly “mistakes.” To give a very visible example, at a meeting in Chicago, all the men may be wearing ties, whereas in New York or Los Angeles you could be in the minority if you show up with a tie!
What’s special about the European-American relationship and how can companies on both sides of the Atlantic make this relationship work to their advantage?
No two other regions in the world are as deeply integrated—historically, economically and culturally—as the U.S. and Europe. This situation alone should give European and American companies confidence in their shared market and their potential to make the most of it. In terms of communications, I believe companies should demonstrate this confidence by not shying away from what sets them apart. National character traits, both real and perceived, can constitute an advantage. For example, it could be said that France is synonymous with culture, savoir-vivre and engineering excellence, to name three French qualities. Therefore French companies might well highlight these qualities as applied to their activity. Likewise, Americans are known for being spontaneous, direct, and for getting the job done. So American companies should embrace these common perceptions. The bottom line: Be true to yourself. Your inherent qualities are what your potential customers are looking for!
Scratch the surface of many Americans and you will find a common ground somewhere in Europe. A colleague of mine from Buffalo, New York turned out to have both Greek and French Huguenot roots. Another from Chicago is both Polish and Lithuanian. To Americans, this genetic tie puts European relationships under the category of long-lost cousin, which lowers resistance to acceptance of differences. Communications can therefore be honest and straightforward, built on a basis of mutual trust.
What changes have you seen in the corporate communications domain in recent years?
Today more than ever before, keeping a company’s image current and fresh requires constant attention and effort. To maintain reputational capital and forward momentum, a company today must stay actively engaged in all ongoing dialogues relevant to its business. Before the social media phenomenon, communications strategies had a much longer shelf life!
There is also demand from investors, customers and regulators for increased transparency, in particular as regards environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues. CEOs are now being asked not just to deliver on promises, but to show results through compelling storytelling. Many still struggle to find their voice in communicating with key stakeholders on these issues, and to go further than just reporting.
The idea of top-down or centrally mediated brand management has expired. Your clients define your brand; you don’t; your employee colleagues, with every client touch-point they have, build the foundation for the brand. The work of communicators is evolving from authors and managers to enablers and teachers. In addition, in the US, erosion of trust in cultural institutions, such as family, schools and community, means corporate leaders are being called on to address issues of moral and ethical bearing, for which they are ill-equipped. Moral decisions were not part of the business curriculum, so how do we response to the murder of George Floyd? More than ever, communicators have a seat at the table for these discussions and must lead the leaders into uncomfortable and unfamiliar territory.
Anne-Isabelle Fleming, Partner, Fine Line Communications Consulting,
Jim Kent, Partner and Chief Marketing & Communications Officer, Thornton Tomasetti, New York, NY, USA