Global Marketing’s WEIRD Problem

2013-07-26-JBBrrokaw[2]My colleague Gavin Wilson, MD Northern & Southern Europe, recently penned a piece for PerformanceIN. In it, he explored the concept of WEIRD and its impact on marketing. I must confess that prior to reading the article, I wasn’t familiar with WEIRD — an acronym that stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic. It’s a sociology term most often used to describe a bias in reach methods, but Gavin’s point was that the WEIRD bias can creep into boardrooms and marketing suites as well.

As I thought about WEIRD it was clear to me that marketing executives here in the US suffer from its effects just as much as those in the UK. In fact, it is probably a greater problem here than in the multi-national EU. Let me explain what WEIRD is all about, how it can impact marketers and what I believe they can do to try to overcome its influence.

First, let me say there’s nothing wrong with being WEIRD. In fact, it might be great if some aspects of WEIRD were everywhere, but the fact of the matter is that they’re not, and that is where the problem begins. As marketers, we like to think we understand our audiences. We often assume that our friends and families and colleagues are a fair representation of our customer base. And if they aren’t there are always focus groups and surveys, right?

Not exactly. Even when marketers try to gain insights they can fall into subtle traps. Take, for example, the recent story in fivethiryeight.com on gauging Americans’ interest in the World Cup. The story described research conducted by Ipsos/Reuters that found that only seven percent of Americans were planning on following the tournament closely. As is their wont, fivethirtyeight dug a bit deeper into the issue and pointed out the research was only conducted in English — which meant that it failed to reflect the much stronger interest among Spanish-speaking Americans. While Ipsos used statistical weighting to provide an accurate reflection of the US population, the fact that it failed to survey in Spanish exposes the kind of blind spot that WEIRD causes globally.

That blind spot is no small matter given that just over 12 percent of the world’s population is WEIRD. Trying to imagine the lives of un-WEIRD customers based on travel or personal experience is a nice idea, but in the end might only provide a smattering of anecdotal insights that don’t really solve the problem. So if focus groups, statistical weighting and thought experiments don’t work perfectly, what can global marketers do to interact with their customers and prospects in the right way?

Think locally to market globally.

Perhaps that sounds trite, but let me explain. Take, for example, so-called big data. For today’s most advanced marketers, (big) data has become the lifeblood of their operations. Unlike matter, data is always multiplying — it can come from almost anywhere and can be mixed and matched and supplemented and filtered and any number of other verbs you’d like to toss in there. When filtered and analyzed smartly, insights can help marketers drive the actions they want. When it comes to data, the reality is that an organization’s global customer base is more than just the sum of its parts.

The way businesses use data and the programmatic marketing technologies that put it to work vary widely around the world. As Gavin points, out, these differences can be based on laws and regulations, the technological infrastructure, local talent and the availability of market-specific data. With those constraints in mind, one might imagine taking a local approach is the more sensible path. That is true, but only to a degree.

Concepts like personalization, loyalty and taking a 360-degree view of customers are all strategies that should be global. The actual implementation, however, is something better executed locally. Online shopping clubs are a great example. They provide personalized offers and experiences and have been largely well-received in much of Europe. Here in North America the same approach has not gained traction.

As global marketers contend with increasing competition and a rising tide of data (especially as offline and online data merge), they must avoid the temptation to view the world as WEIRD. It may feel like a safe and sensible approach, but it is actually a set of blinders that hide much of what matters from the marketer’s view. As people responsible for supporting global brands, we need to set the broad strategies, provide the best possible tools and technology and then leave the local execution to our in-market colleagues — because the world isn’t as WEIRD as we may think.

JB Brokaw is currently the President at Sociomantic Labs, a real-time and personalized system that delivers increased and transparent performance. Prior to joining Sociomantic, Brokaw served as chief revenue officer and chief client officer at iProspect where he was responsible for securing new business as well as the growth and development of the agency.