I had been thinking about the Groupon model and its appeal in various countries for quite while when a Google alert recently hit my inbox – Groupon was to shut down its service in Romania. At the beginning of September 2014, Groupon pulled the plug on this market of just under 100,000 square miles and around 20 million population. Groupon simply stated that it never gained traction and failed to attract critical mass. Spoiled by impressive global growth of 23.5% globally and 42.3% YTD growth in its Europe, Middle East and Africa regions from 2013 to 2014, this acknowledgement of failure must have come hard to executives. So far, they have not not commented on the reasons for the failure, so all that can be said are wild guesses. What is known is that Groupon entered Romania in 2010 through the acquisition of local competitor CityDeal, a move that had spurred the emergence of smaller local deal sites – around 100 in 2012. Besides the competitive environment, another factor may have been that Romania is still a country where the digital divide continues to exist. The ultimate clue with regards to the reasons for the Romanian failure may lie in a far more distant and much larger market – in China. Groupon has had its fair share of difficulties in the Middle Kingdom: poaching of employees through high salaries didn’t show the results Groupon needed, the bid to take over local competitor Lashou had failed, aggressive commission tactics were rejected by vendors, and the practice to staff even remote regional markets with foreign managers who lacked both the knowledge and the “guanxi” didn’t go down well with the Chinese market. After years of trying in China, Groupon has decided earlier in 2014 to exit that lucrative market. Is it too far-fetched to assume that it’s been a similar lack of appreciation for local differences in the market has been the reason for the Romanian exit?
Archive for the ‘International Business’ Category
After only three years in China, German electronics retail giant Media Markt in 2013 joined the list of companies that have left China after years of trying, including US-based companies Best Buy and Home Depot. Not too long ago, the store, owned by Metro-group had lofty plans of 100 and more stores. In 2014 it’s a distant memory at best.
According to some analysts, the Metro-group owned chain simply didn’t understand the mechanics of the very competitive Chinese market. Some even say that they didn’t know why they were in China in the first place. What was it that went wrong. First, Media Markt didn’t understand how price-sensitive Chinese consumers are. While Media Markt focused on the consumer experience, Chinese consumers were using its stores as showrooms before buying the products they wanted online or at another retailer. In addition, other retailers, such as local competitors Gome or Suning kept their cost down by setting up shop in less fancy locations than Media Markt. Chinese competitors usually also sub-let space to brand manufacturers who bear the bulk of the risk. Media Markt’s flagship store, however, not only was fully self-operated, but also occupied too much space on one of the most expensive retail streets in China. That amounted to cost pressures and brought Media Markt’s (necessary) nationwide expansion to a screeching halt. While Suning had built 1,700 stores all over China, Media Markt had only 7. This resulted in a situation where Media Markt only made about 5 % of local Chinese competitor Suning’s revenues. As a result – according to the Financial Times – the group didn’t want to invest the several hundreds million Euros annually needed to establish a significant Chinese operation. Media Markt wanted to build a famous brand for its store, in a market where consumers are looking more towards products as brands.
In the past few months, U.S. federal prosecutors have cracked down on shipments of high end cars to China. Dozens of luxury vehicles at U.S. ports and millions of dollars in U.S. bank accounts have been seized. What had happened? Are U.S. car manufacturers no longer interested in the Chinese market? Not at all! The seized cars were mostly BMWs that were purchased by straw men and their “employers”in the U.S. for resale on the grey market in China. With a sticker price for a BMW X5 xDrive 35i of around $56,000 in the U.S. and around $153,000 in China - almost three times as much – there’s a huge potential for profitable wheeling and dealing between the two countries. Driven by their need for status and prestige, Chinese consumers are willing to pay the price for a foreign luxury car, and BMW and other manufacturers naturally want it all for themselves, and so they have taken legal action. All legal aspects aside, what’s interesting is that this is a perfect case of global price discrimination / differentiation – volume positioning in the U.S. and premium positioning in China. Based on the cultural conditions in the local environment, global companies are leveraging these price differentials to their advantage and – as has been shown in this case – are trying to protect this advantage as long as possible.
In the past, H&M may not always have met analyst’s expectations, it may have taken some heat over the use of Photoshop in some ads, it has been criticized over unfair labor practices, but from this blog’s angle, the Swedish multinational seems to be doing things right in international markets. Considering high profile retail failures such as The Gap’s in Germany, Fresh & Easy’s in the U.S. or WalMart’s in Korea, H&M has been navigating foreign waters without major blunders so far. One of the markets where H&M is very active and expanding is China – a market in which many foreign entrants fail. While H&M did have some run-ins with authorities in China over product quality – excessive PH levels, weak crack resistance, and lower fiber content than claimed, it has all been very contained and hasn’t hurt them. In September 2013, after a year of rapid growth and expansion, H&M opened it’s 3,000th store globally in China where it currently has 170 stores. While this puts H&M behind Inditex’s Zara’s 400 plus stores in China, H&M has ambitious plans for future expansion in the Middle Kingdom. Analysts say that H&M is filling a mid-range gap between sports apparel and high-end luxury clothes in China. By bringing affordable clothes to the market they are catering to the needs of younger Chinese consumers who want Western style shopping experiences and clothes that provide some degree of status that an established global brand conveys.
People who follow foreign companies in China are well aware of the challenges that Danone has had in that market over the last few years. We’ll never quite know why Danone’s joint venture relationship went sour (not good for a company dealing in dairy products…) but it may not be completely unfair to assume that it often takes two to make and two to break a relationship. The simplistic and official story is that Wahaha reneged on a deal to let Danone buy the majority stake in the joint venture, after which Danone filed for arbitration and then took legal action. It probably was right there when the real trouble started. In China, you don’t sue your partner before a court of law, you chit-chat it out. But there was definitely more to it, including the fact that the Chairman of Wahaha, Mr. Zong Qinghou didn’t exactly appreciate the tight shackles that Danone placed on him in all business decisions – not recognizing that China is a market that often calls for entrepreneurial approaches rather than the central control that French companies are known for.
But these are things past. More importantly, Danone seems to be in the middle of its next quagmire. Granted, it was unfounded allegations of contamination that caused their Dumex baby food division to recall baby formula on a large scale, but the allegations of price fixing in the same product market were very real and ended in a fine ordered by Chinese courts (a total of $ 110 mio including five other companies) and more negative press by the media which is just waiting for Danone to get more scrambled egg on its face.
Then, as the Wall Street Journal reported last week, Danone’s Nutrica unit, a division which specializes in medical nutrition, had to deal with allegations that it bribed more than 100 doctors at more than a dozen hospitals in Beijing. How much more does Danone want to work on the image of the ugly, imperialist company? If that’s their goal, they can stop, because they have succeeded! If not, they can stop, too, because it is time to embark on a focused campaign to restore their own image and that of Western companies in China in general. And if they don’t care about image (let alone about being a good corporate citizen), maybe Danone should simply look at their challenges in China from a bottom line perspective as sales are already declining.
Ever since Thomas L. Friedman, Pulitzer Prize winning author, published “The World is Flat“, we have been listening to the mantra of the world becoming a completely level playing field for companies for many years now. Other authors such as Pankaj Ghemawat continue to remind us that we’re still quite far from a borderless world, and failures by both large, multinational companies and countless small- and medium sized enterprises are a great testimony to his position. Legal and administrative barriers continue to exist even in politically integrated areas such as the European Union, relevant economic differences between countries persist, and – probably most importantly – cultural differences are as a alive as they have ever been (as this blog tries to document). Looking at my collection of McDonald’s advertising from various countries, I was recently reminded again of two things: first, cultures are still having a strong influence over the marketing-mix; second, McDonald’s is doing a pretty good job at addressing these differences. Let’s have a look at this small selection of examples below. What we see on the first one is not surprising. We all know that religious beliefs make the marketing of beef burgers next to impossible in India; product adaptation becomes a necessity. McDonald’s has therefore added items such as the “Chicken Maharaja Mac” or the ”McAloo Tikki” to its Indian menu. So far so good. When it comes to promotion, the next example (second from the left) shows how McDonald’s is using a national celebrity athlete, basketball player Yao Bing, in its advertising in China. As is common in testimonial advertising McDonald’s tries to transfer the positive image associated with Yao Bing onto the McDonald’s brand. Being both collectivistic and highly status oriented, China very willingly accepts someone’s endorsement who is a source of national pride and has unparalleled athletic and commercial success. Doing this, McDonald’s is showing a lot of cultural intelligence. And now for a European example – Austria. As I have recently posted in a different context, Austria is a relatively risk-averse culture. As far as consumer behavior is concerned, this results in a preference for tested products, products that have third-party certifications, and traditional products that can be trusted. And which products could be trusted more than products of Austrian origin? McDonald’s has picked up on this and is very openly playing the country-of-origin trump card – 100 % beef from Austria, 100 % Austrian potatoes (second image from right), and using Austrian slang words that wouldn’t even been understood just a few miles across the border in Germany – “Pipifein” which means something like “Great” (first from the right). Well done, McDonald’s!
I’m certain I have missed a ton of helpful observations, and I’ll keep working on the topic. In a future blogpost, I will also address how foreign managers can adapt their practices in order to succeed in Austria’s cultural environment.
Yes, the British are leaving the United States – again. After a $1.6 billion investment, British supermarket giant Tesco announced that it may be selling it’s US “Fresh and Easy” chain. Clearly, corporate PR speak for “we are pulling out of the United States altogether”. What has happened to Tesco, which successfully operates more than 6,000 stores worldwide? On the surface, the promises of convenience and tasty, freshly prepared food sounded great, but what US customers experienced was less “Fresh and Easy” and more “Small and Strange”. In the eyes of American consumers, the stores had a limited product range (terrible for a country where the pet food aisles are often better stocked than entire supermarkets in Europe), a selection that was uniform irrespective of the neighborhood of the store (watercress salad in South Los Angeles…), unfamiliar British fare instead of the ubiquitous American brands (Marmite, seriously?), too much packaging (in a country where we want our sandwiches on sourdough, toasted on one side with non-fat mayonnaise and chopped tomato – not sliced – Dijon on the upper half, and Pepper Jack, not Swiss), and – worst of all – it made customers do their own check out!
So, it’s really the old story of standardization versus adaptation and finding the right balance between protecting the efficiencies of a proven business model and adapting it to the environment of the target market. Yes, there is a tremendous amount of change in the supermarket landscape in the US that invites new concepts and experimentation, but you certainly can’t just bomb drop an entirely new concept into a market that is as competitive as, for instance the Southern Californian. You need to get the word out, listen to consumers, and slowly educate them, instead of alienating. But then again, if the entire economics of a business model are built around a standardized approach, then the only choice a company has is simply not to enter a culturally distant market. Or leave, several years and $1.6 billion later. Even if you’re a huge company such as Tesco.
This week, the two houses of the Indian parliament have decided to finally and fully pave the road for foreign direct investment in the country’s retail sector. Long awaited, and heavily disputed, this measure opens the sector to foreign retailers who have been waiting at the doorsteps of one of the largest consumer markets in the world. Until recently, only partial ownership has been allowed which didn’t prevent some retailers from tipping their toes into this foreign land. As important as the passing of the legislation has been, it shouldn’t distract from the fact that there are many other barriers to overcome than just the formal barrier of the law. As, I’m certain, US retail giant WalMart, which entered the Indian market in 2007 under a joint venture with the Bharti Group, can confirm. Originally, foreign companies including Wal-Mart’s joint venture were only allowed to operate wholesale stores. Based on recent changes in the law retail stores came within reach, and Wal-Mart announced that it would expand over the next few months. Now, in India’s bureaucratic culture, expansion can be cumbersome. Often, because of the burgeoning bureaucracy and the overlapping of federal, state and local laws, fifty or sixty different permits may be required before the opening of a store is approved. The suspicion is that the expansion train was going too slow, so that some Wal-Mart employees started to grease the tracks. An Indian government agency called Directorate of Enforcement therefore has been investigating Wal-Mart on suspicions of such corruption. Even before that, Wal-Mart had already suspended a number of employees, potentially including its CFO in India based on investigations related to the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The fact that Wal-Mart started similar probes in Mexico, Brazil, China and India shows that blaming entire countries or cultures for corruption may only tell one side of the story. It always takes one to take the bribe, and one to pay the bribe. Implicitly or explicitly, employees must have felt a certain pressure to speed up the process, to please their bosses, or to bring results so that they can get the raise and the promotion. This case also shows that entering mature or developed foreign markets is difficult enough, but when it comes to emerging markets or developing countries, the differences in local practices can often create severe difficulties even for the best companies and the most skilled employees. Strategies that fit Western, industrialized nations, don’t necessarily fit emerging markets, and therefore need to be adapted carefully.
Yes, we’ve all heard the story about the Chevrolet Nova (not true as I have reported on this blog earlier), the Mitsubishi Pajero, the Mitsubishi Colt and other car models. However, behind those obvious and funny stories of branding blunders, there’s also some cultural richness and subtlety to explore. Have you ever thought about the names US car manufacturers brand their cars with? Ford EXPEDITION, Jeep PATRIOT, Lincoln NAVIGATOR, Dodge CHARGER – the list is endless. All of these names are more than just inventions of overly creative marketeers. They stand for something, and they provide identity. They’ve been chosen to describe the essence of the model, but also because they address some deep emotional needs of customers in the target group. To most customers in the United States, EXPEDITION stands for something positive, and so does PATRIOT or CHARGER. These are culturally loaded names for car models that conjure some of the positive values that most Americans have grown up with – individuality, initiative, responsibility, competition, to name but a few. Now stop and think about German car models (and, for the sake of the argument, let’s leave Volkswagen out of the equation for a moment). Mercedes has the A-class, the B-class, the C-class and so on. And when they go really crazy, those jovial Germans come up with the G-class! And BMW? They have the 1-series, the 3-series, the 5-series… You get the idea. Now what do these tell us about German cultural values? Germans value ideas such as structure, order, hierarchy, logic, but also the perfection of engineering that is buried in the numbers and letters. The big mystery of course is why do Americans then still like German luxury cars? Maybe it’s the lure of the exotic, maybe it’s that model names aren’t the most important factors in the purchase decision, or maybe it’s just one of those inexplicable paradoxes of culture.