6 Ways to Understand Local Market Culture and Work Cross-Border

April 25, 2019

As the world becomes ever more globalized and companies expand from local markets onto the international stage, the skill set of being able to work, build, and sell cross-culture and cross-border will become extremely valuable.

Some of the greatest challenges of cross-border and cross-culture businesses are not understanding local markets, not being able to build trust with local customers and staff, and not localizing the product, thinking a product or business model that works for one market will work in another. In order to do this better, global companies need people who can empathize with local customers and diverse team members, build internal communication and decision making models that include teams overseas, and most of all be able to keep up and adapt with different cultures quickly.

How can we understand a population? Where do we even start? How can we take advantage of market opportunities? How can we empathize with another person and understand why they make the decisions they do? How can we immerse into a culture as fast as possible?

I am on a one year journey to different countries around the world to answer these questions and to build my own skillset. This is the framework I'm using to observe, evaluate, and later keep up with each market.

1. You must talk to people: start with people like you

You have to start somewhere, if you know no locals, go for people like you: The Expats.

Whether it's expat communities or friends of friends who moved there, expats are a perfect place to start your network. These are a group of people who chose to move for some better opportunity; whether it's a curiosity about the culture or career opportunity, moving to a new market generally means a conscious life decision that was weighed against staying where they were. This population will have insight into what drew them, what opportunities there are for people similar to both of you, and what challenges you will face.

This group of people will also be able to connect you with other expat communities (who all naturally cling together as foreigners) that are cross industry, cross hierarchy, and across all career stages. Expats likely work in some kind of cross-border role and will likely have local counterparts, co-workers, neighbors, and friends which will help you begin your journey in talking with locals.

2. Join marketing communities

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If your goal is to understand the people, their purchasing behaviors, how they live, and get both qualitative and quantitative data points - go to those who's job is to do that. Marketers are paid to research, design, analyze, and keep up with new tools and trends in the industry. Go dive into everything they're diving into.

In major cities with booming industries, there are almost always communities for marketers to share industry knowledge, reports, advice, and networks. Even in developing areas, there are always marketing communities in other areas (where the companies and agencies are) that are targeting that demographic. These groups can be found on localized versions of meetup, facebook groups, and WhatsApp chat groups. In China, they are mostly in WeChat groups and 知识星球. You can start with searching up marketing bloggers on those platforms and other blogging sites like 知乎 and 头条.

I found it helpful to be reading the same reports and to be part of the same groups as local marketers. There may be a language barrier, but it's worth it to push through (plus most reports contain graphs and a short summary analysis).

Following the most locally recommended bloggers and being a part of these communities will help you keep up to date and connected even when you leave the area.

3. Live how they live

The most important thing, and what may seem like the most easy to do, is to live how locals live. This means using the products they use both online and offline, forgoing all foreign apps. Read the news they read, find communities the same way they find communities, connect using their social apps, use their banking, healthcare, and education systems, and everything in between.

If you really want to go to an extremity to understand purchasing behavior, set your monthly spending limit to that of the demographic you are studying. For example, the average millennial, college grad without family property in Beijing makes about 5000RMB or ~750USD per month. In order to better understand this market you can also limit yourself to that monthly spend.

4. Break your research into basic need categories

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To start understanding a population, it is helpful to break down the research into different buckets based on common needs for every human and learn about how each demographic solves their problem and what products they use to meet each need.

For example, in China people break human basics into four categories: 衣食住行。 This translates into:

  • How people clothe themselves
  • How people feed themselves
  • How people shelter themselves
  • How people transport themselves and products

This would include how they discover or find clothing, food, shelter, and transportation options to all the way through the customer experience cycle to purchase (conversion) and retention. For example, if you wanted to learn more about the e-commerce industry, you can dive deep into the clothing category and answer further questions. How do people find clothes to buy, where do they go online and offline, what do they purchase, how much money do they spend, how do they decide on optionality, how often do they browse/purchase, how do they pay, how do they receive their clothes, etc.

Of course all B2B industries, services like healthcare and education, and not-basic-need products like entertainment and spiritual health are missing here. You can always add new categories into your framework.

The purpose of this is to see what stage of development this market is at and what gaps/opportunities there are to solve these problems.

5. Understand the stakeholders, barriers, and challenges as much as the opportunities

Knowing why something doesn't exist yet is just as important as discovering a need. Always back up ideas and understand why something is successful or could not be successful in a political, social and economical model.

For example, in China, government relations is very different than in the US and companies must assume different risks. Trust and guanxi are built over time, making B2B sales extremely difficult in China, especially when it comes to dealing with sensitive data.

You can ask everyone you meet about the key challenges they face relating to your market or task and discuss ideas with people more familiar with the market.

6. Read a lot of books

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Another way to learn about risks and opportunities and broaden your global perspective is to read. Read books written by local authors and timeless pieces on theories that do not change over time.

In order to understand a country, its people, and your market, specifically read on the following subjects:

  • History and Politics - "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."- George Santayana
  • Financial Markets (Private and Public) - Including history, cycles, investments
  • Innovation and tech trends - Consumer tech trends and core technology (eg. AI) being developed

I am currently in China, spending Q2 learning about its economy and people. What drew me is the speed China has grown in the last 15 years and its ambitions to expand both its excess productivity, services, and technologies abroad in the coming years. If you want to hear about the specific communities I joined, books I read, and other things I did to immerse myself into this market, you can follow my writings on LinkedIn, Medium, or WeChat (QR Code below)!

I would also love to hear from anyone who has other methods of best immersing and learning about a market as I will be traveling to emerging markets next!

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