Bringing European, Asian and Australian companies to the US, Bill Kenney, founder of MEET and Soft Land Partners, discusses communication issues, misunderstandings and disconnects with some inbound clients. Among these issues are top overseas executives’ lack of delegation and empowerment, their changing junior executives’ decisions without understanding the full context, and not presenting their marketing messages from the customer’s point of view. Bill’s insights can also help US execs understand seemingly-obvious American assumptions that may have to be communicated to foreign venture partners.
Stories of marketing expectations in international business
Examples of ventures that failed
Hello everyone, and welcome to Global Gurus. Every Friday, we explore stories of international business and speak with industry leaders operating around the world. I’m your host, Philip Auerbach, at Auerbach international.
If you’re tuning in for the first time, thank you for joining us. We start each podcast with a running segment called “Faux Pas Fridays,” where we explore funny bloopers or mistranslations that do not quite convey the professional image that your organization wants to project. So, in this case, there was a sign at an Indian airport from the Airports Authority of India. I’m sure they meant to say that eating on the carpet is strictly prohibited, but instead, the sign very clearly said “Eating the carpet is strictly prohibited.”
So, with that. I’d like to introduce today’s guest, Bill Kenney. Bill is the founder of Meet, a company that helps international B2B companies gain traction and scale in the US inbound through trade shows, events, and strategic connections. Bill also leads Soft Land Partners, a global network of support organizations and service providers that help companies from any country, industry, or stage, expand internationally. Welcome, Bill. I’m delighted you’re with us.
Thanks for having me, Philip. I’m looking forward to the conversation.
Before we dive in, I know that you’re a wonderful sailor and you live on a houseboat, so perhaps you could tell us a bit about your background and the continents you’ve visited, how you grew up, and how you gained your global interest and experience.
For those that know about boats, we don’t live on a houseboat. We’re on a catamaran sailboat. A houseboat is a definite type of boat. A houseboat, which is more suited to lakes and inland travel, is open to a blue-water type of adventure.
So, you asked a question about my background and what got me interested in the water. My family traveled a fair amount when I was a kid, actually before I graduated from high school. My dad had a huge affinity for mountain climbing, so we climbed the Matterhorn in Switzerland. We did a lot of skiing in Europe and just traveled around a bit. And then, when I was still quite young, I was chosen for the US sailing team and competed on it.
For about ten years, I got to compete on pretty much every continent except for Antarctica. I’m not sure how the sailing is there, but we didn’t make it, so that’s what I mean, and one of the cool things about that, in particular, is that I started sailing internationally when I was probably 16 or 17, and it was at that time and at that age whenever you we’re competing in, whether it’s another country or another state, there’s usually a local host who will let you stay at their house. So you weren’t staying at a local Holiday Inn or whatever. You were completely immersed in the culture, whether it was Japan, Denmark, Australia, or wherever. You’re staying with a local, so we were there for several weeks, if not, in some cases, months, and so we got a sense of their world. And then in our business, for ten years we were servicing only international companies entering the US. That’s also been very immersive in terms of converting the fun and experiences into more practical business but also dealing with some of the companies’ challenges and successes as they look to market across not just oceans but cultures.
That’s fascinating. Well, I’m sure you’ve got some very interesting stories about international companies coming into the US, and as you know, international business works both ways, of course, it’s both American companies going abroad and foreign companies coming here, and the same challenges and same issues apply, just often in reverse.
Perhaps you could share with us some interesting stories of different kinds of marketing or expectations or communications that you’ve encountered and how you resolved those.
Yeah, I would say there’s a common denominator that pretty much every company that we see coming into the US has, and I’m putting this into a sales and marketing communication context. The marketing materials that they share with us are those that they’re used to using at home or in the markets that they’re currently in. They often communicate features of their product instead of benefits.
And certainly, when they come to the US market, we’re much more succinct in terms of wanting to know What’s In It For Me, that famous radio station WIFM, and so a lot of our work early on, besides figuring out the right events for them to go to, is Americanizing their marketing communications.
We think of it in terms of three steps. First, it’s really about helping them identify what fish they want to catch. I’m sure you’re aware that fish is a metaphor for a prospect, and I have to use nautical references. So, what fish do they want to catch?
And then, of course, that informs the next two things they need to know, which are: Where are the fish? and Where am I going to go fishing then?
Finally, what bait am I going to put in the water? We come up with an agreed-upon hypothesis about whom we’re trying to catch. We design whatever marketing communication is needed, whether it’s a sell sheet or their Expo booth or any of the information on their website so that it communicates directly to them. We try to think of it as what’s keeping that fish, the target buyer persona, that person awake at night, so our communication is really about getting their attention first and then alleviating or finding information that allows them to see that we both understand their challenge, but also that we have some benefits that will help alleviate that challenge.
Are there different kinds of companies that you’ve encountered, whether from different countries or different regions, that you know have very different perceptions? I guess what marketing is or what US marketing is or what they need to offer. We say that they focus on features instead of benefits. So, are there any examples, again, of countries that do things radically differently from us?
Yeah, it’s interesting, you know?
I would say that we’ve worked with European, Asian, and Australian companies. We’ve seen a pretty good diversity of companies and thinking about Europe and Asia, certainly even just within those continents, there’s incredible diversity in terms of companies and types of companies, but I guess I wouldn’t say that there is something radically different in one region than in another. I’d say that you know that. Some sort of understanding of making sure that you’re communicating benefits. Yeah, I think you know what I mean. Then it comes down to what their sales aptitude is.
I think after that, Marketing and Sales are intended to work very closely. They gather and marketing ideally presents highly qualified leads to sales and then sales do whatever needs assessment must be done and then, to the extent there’s a match, they work on converting that prospect into a sale. I would say the other kind of major challenge that we see in terms of companies coming into the US is their sales aptitude.
It’s not that they’re bad or bad salespeople; it’s just that when you know our expectations, the US is very strong around follow-up. And the way we communicate in terms of just understanding needs before we — it’s almost like when you go to a doctor’s office, it would be a rare day to walk into a doctor’s office, and you know when you walk in before the doctor does anything, do they give you a prescription right away or do they operate on you? Don’t do that. They do some kind of assessment before they advise any solution, and there may not be a problem. So they have to make certain that they do that ethically, and I think the US are practice is very similar to that in terms of how we look at making sure that Number One, we have empathy, and we understand what the customer needs, and then we apply it if we have the right solution, we apply that solution. For them, we give them advice as to where to find this solution. I think another major gap that we see is that you know …
I’m sorry. Are you saying that a lot of foreign companies don’t do that or don’t have that process? We don’t understand that process.
I speak only in English and not even that well. Mostly when I go to a foreign country and I’m at a restaurant, I order a meal. You know, I’m interacting with whomever the waiter or waitress is, and I do my best to articulate what I like. And when they don’t understand me, my only recourse as an ignorant American is to speak louder.
And unfortunately, that’s the way I see a lot of marketing today in terms of the foreign companies that come in. And unfortunately, it’s also in the US. It’s in politics and some of how we market in some ways. AND my suggestion isn’t to talk louder; it’s to learn the language of the person you’re interacting with.
And I think that I would imagine you would advocate that as well as wanting to speak the other person’s language. Not ours. It’s probably a better way to do it.
So, as we work with clients, I use the word empathy, it’s really about understanding the needs and values of the people that we are working with. They’re across from us and can see everything we can.
Help them satisfy those needs, and I think it’s a big challenge we see for international companies. Because they don’t understand these customs, they say, I will use bigger fonts or they will just talk louder. And we’ll try to compel them that way.
I would think that there are some major cultural issues, for example. One of the issues in Asia specifically, is that they are group oriented. The emphasis is always on the group, and hopefully the harmony of the group, and not the individual. And so, one doesn’t normally criticize the senior leader because that person would let them lose face. So, you have to be very careful how you phrase things and so forth.
Dealing with young, brash Americans—you know, Americans who are very direct and don’t care about whom they criticize, it becomes a very different way of acting. So, have you seen these kinds of issues, these kinds of cultural issues, coming into the United States and how people behave or think they should behave, only to be pulled over?
It’s funny that you mentioned it.
We have a Taiwanese client with whom we just had a meeting with their three founders. Unfortunately, we were seeing a couple of things in the company that were our indicators, even though we had only been doing this for a short time. You know, whether it’s in six months or 12 months, you know they might not be around, and you know the failure points that we see, and I think you hit one of them well, which is this kind of groupthink concept. We have meetings with their marketing team, we have meetings with their sales team, and we’ll have other meetings. And we’ll make decisions in the meeting. They’ll go away. And because we’ve made decisions, we start, you know, 10,000 kilometers away. We start acting based on those commitments or those decisions.
They return a week later to the next meeting and tell us the decisions were changed, and they go somewhere else. Some of them are simple decisions, and some of them are complex. And here’s the thing: that is interesting, and this is where we had to kind of come straight at them with this. And truly, we see this as we’ve seen this in enough clients now and we’ve seen it in European clients as well. But it is for us, it is one of only a couple of indicators that the company is going to fail, and every company we’ve seen it in because we haven’t had this sort of “coming to Jesus” type meeting, which we did with this company the other day. I’d say we’ve seen enough to be confident in the problem, but what we’re finding is that when this happens, the people who ultimately enforce decisions are often one or two of these sorts of founders they’re not in the marketing or the sales meeting, and so they have no benefit of the context of why the decision was made or what strategy they were aligning with.
So not only do we have to waste time going back around and giving them context and sort of reversing the whole situation, but they also feel compelled to control it. That’s a really interesting thing. So, I would even say, you know, the group thing can be a challenge, but also the lack of empowerment for the people that they’ve tasked I mean, with various roles, I mean, I believe we distribute responsibility fairly freely. We give it away until somebody can’t handle it, and then we start wheeling it back.
At least what we’ve experienced in some of these other countries is that they’re much more reluctant to delegate fully and confidently. But it’s brutal when we see that – it’s just massive – and it’s incredibly frustrating. It’s a waste of time, and they end up making decisions again without the benefit of any context.
And so, it just does not work.
This top-down management approach is traditionally very European as well. Do you see it on all continents?
So, we’ve had a fair number of Hungarian companies that we’ve worked with. There it has been a challenge, at least in some of the companies, not all of them. Less I would say in the UK, that doesn’t tend to be them. I think they’re closer to our style of management, although they have some words they spell differently, other than that, they’re not. I’d say they’re closer.
By the way, English is their language; we’re just borrowing it.
That’s what’s true. Yeah, Churchill had some of the better words on that for sure.
In this situation, it’s kind of impossible to generalize well because it’s not every, and it’s certainly not everywhere, and undoubtedly U.S. companies that have similar challenges. Crossing borders were and particularly where one of our Australian clients called it the tyranny of distance, but the idea, I think when we’re all at the same water cooler every day, there’s a certain amount of interaction and communication that just happens naturally but when we’re separated by oceans and tens of thousands of kilometers, it’s much harder.
Time zones are a communication killer. I think that all actions against us, and what we frequently discuss in our onboarding with clients is that we’re going to, it’s our practice to over-communicate. We ask that you do the same, and we will give them some sense of where the failure points will be. And whether it’s misunderstandings or miscommunication, the better and more we communicate, the less of that we’ll see.
I’ve often observed at trade shows, especially with Asian and East Asian companies – some Japanese, a lot of Koreans, and the Chinese – have great typos in their English signs. You can tell they misspelled words, words are missing, they express something incorrectly. And I often point this out to their American salespeople. Did you know? I’m sure you’re aware of this. There is a problem here and there. And they said Yes but if the Americans try to bring it to the senior managers, who are the Asian owners of the company, it’s so criticized that they take it as personal criticism and they lose face. We can’t raise the issue with them because they think that they’ve done it correctly.
And these translations are usually done in-house. A person says in Korea that he thinks that he or she knows English well. And you know, you can’t criticize that person because then it reflects badly on the owner or the president.
Yeah, I’m not sure we’d have a client like that for very long. That wouldn’t work. I mean, ultimately, we feel an incredible responsibility for their success. So, if we don’t feel we can have that kind of influence, we’ll make a recommendation to them. Some other resources might be able to help them, but we’re not the right resource. I mean, ethically, we can’t. We can’t do that. We wouldn’t show up to a show with anything less than what we believe will be successful.
Can you give us some examples of ventures that have not gone well? Either one you know of or the ones that have been your clients, or perhaps one that you know about?
Yeah, we had a client a couple of years ago, there was a little bit of space outside of our space, but that’s still one that we had… I would say it’ll be up there… Our focus and most of our clients’ has been in the life sciences energy. Technology in general and some defense as well, and this company is in the nutrition space. We have a beastly amount of knowledge in that space and good contacts.
So, we worked with him for quite a while, and the challenges didn’t go away. They have nothing to do with our effort or the product or anything like that, but the challenge for them was to choose from a variety of things they had. — It was a whole series of things. — But they had challenges in getting EPA certification to bring the product into the US. They had challenges with the EPA’s equivalent in Australia, called the TGA. They changed a lot of the legislation while we were working with them. And then they had delivery and distribution challenges as well. That was hard when you know … our conversation here is a lot about language and communication and so on. There were a variety of things that were different about the way they were communicating about their products in Australia. Then we would advise, and we did advise for their communication needs in the US.
So, Number One, they had a really popular podcast. You know, they were getting, what, a quarter million listeners a month for their podcast. Significant, but the episodes were like an hour or an hour and a half long. I mean, they were very long, and for the US audience that’s, that’s a pretty big investment. Joe Rogan gets away with it for sure. But what about the rest of us mere mortals? I think it’s OK to do that for that length of time. Joe Rogan learned a while ago, though he broke up the episode into one-minute to five-minute vignettes that get people to an hour or an hour and a half, or six hours, depending on whom he’s talking to, or if he’s smoking pot with Elon Musk or something like that.
And some of the other challenges around their communication… So, they had that kind of a long podcast without the vignettes. From a marketing standpoint, and you know, another certain challenge that communication presents, they had all sorts of… let’s just say 20 different products, and with different flavors and whatnot within each product, so the whole slew of things that will eventually be lined up, there’s probably more like 50 different options for different products you buy from them. And the labeling was inconsistent. So, you know the colors and where the logo was, and how the information was displayed… if you looked at anyone individually, they were fine, they were well represented, they had good English, and they were actually kind of pithy and fun in terms of how they communicated their value proposition. But you know, if you walked through the store, it would be difficult to say this product is from the same family as that product because there were so many different ways with the different types of products that they represented. You know, the labeling and the coloring and all that.
One of the products would be white with white labeling, and another one would be in a black container with a black label, and you are just …It was just hard to create any sort of brand connection. They were very strong in Australia, and they did very, very good business, but they were coming into the US, it’s a much larger market and there’s a lot more noise on our shelves because that space is filled. And so, I think I can compete here.
You’ve got to be much more buttoned up and you’ve got to be much easier to find … you want to take the friction out of it for the customer. And I think from a communication standpoint, that was challenging and some of the same challenges came through, like when you went to their website and stuff like that in terms of finding the product and so on.
Yeah, I think the real obligation is what we have in terms of helping develop communication. How exactly do we make it easy for the customer to know, number one, what we do? I walked through trade shows, a couple of weeks, so I got to know it makes sense.
And the thing is, I walk through. So, you could walk through a trade show. We go in some cases to some very large enterprise trade shows. And you’ll see whether it’s IBM or GE or whoever in these large companies. And at these events, it’s one division that’s exhibiting, but the division has the corporate tagline as opposed to their value proposition or whatnot as their headline, and so it’s just amazing to me, not just for international companies coming in, but for companies in general, how much they don’t understand or look at the way they communicate from the customer’s point of view. They look at it in terms of “Do you know the marketing person is saying, ‘Well, this is our brand, this is what we do.’ “ But they’re not looking at it. This is an aircraft or aerospace show, after all. They’re interested in jet engines. Let’s say, why do we have the overall corporate slogan instead of the value proposition or the jet engine group, which is a completely different communication?
When you think about what you’re trying to do in a booth, it’s I don’t have what I have. I used to have lobster traps when I was a kid. So, I thought of a trade show booth as a lot like a lobster trap. You put some bait in a second chamber and the lobster to get to that comes into sort of a first chamber. They say it’s hard to get out, but it’s easier to get into the second chamber and the second chamber is essentially a trap. And so, they get in. And they get to the bait, but unfortunately, the next morning the lobster man or woman comes out and takes them to market.
So, when I look at a booth, or when we look at a booth, we see the goal of a booth. It’s not to trap people certainly, but it’s to put a piece of bait out.
Someone listening will know the term “inbound marketing,” but very similar to techniques that are used in inbound marketing is that if you understand whom you’re trying to attract, you put out a bait that only they’re interested in. So, if we decide, like I used the metaphor of fishing, if we decide we’re trying to catch salmon, as an example, or tuna, or striped bass, we put a bait in that only they’re going to respond to and all the other fish swim by. And when we do that, there are a couple of values that come from that one that you do not know. Are these people much more qualified than us? Instead of us being out there and sort of in the aisle pulling them in, they’re opting in.
They’re saying no, I recognize this as a problem or an opportunity and I’m coming in because I’m self-selecting to respond to this and so when we’re trying to help a client find a prospect, they need three things: they need to have money, and they also need to be urgent. And this test is a way to find urgent people, and all of us want prospects that have some movement in our funnel. We don’t want prospects that grow hair.
We want them to have some momentum, and this is a way to be true to ourselves that we have high-quality prospects by using communication in a way that again, only our prospect or the client’s prospect will respond to it. And ideally, if we’re at a trade show with 10,000 people, maybe there are 50 or 100 prospects in the room. So, this is very delicate. You know, it’s like doing surgery. It is very delicate to develop that communication to be specific to that type of buyer and be happy if 9,950 continue on their way and the right 50 opt-in. Optimize whatever messaging for each persona over time.
And that’s fascinating. Thank you so much. So, it’s certainly very intriguing from the inbound point of view, which is just as valid as the outbound point of view, and what people need to understand in terms of international marketing. Is there anything else, briefly, that you’d like to share before we close?
Oh, you know, I think those are the highlights, I think for all of us, it’s a continuous process and it all works better when we listen, that’s for sure.
Well, thank you so much, Bill. It’s been a wonderful pleasure to gain your insights today and hear your great stories. This has been Philip Auerbach at www.auerbach-intl.com. Please join us again next week for another edition of Global Gurus and their stories of international business.
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