How to Effectively Market to Americans?
A case study from a successful German company
Jacquelyn Reeves interviewed by Patrick Witt,
Senior Sales & Influencer Manager US (2016)
Jacquelyn Reeves is an expert in the field of intercultural communication and has consulted with a wide range of multinationals on global business strategy and relocation. She taught at the Berlin School of Economics and Law from 2008-2018, where she taught International Business tracks with the courses “Communication and Interaction on the Job”, and “Cross-Cultural Management”.
- Hello, could you please briefly tell us about yourself, your education, and your profession?
My name is Jacquelyn Reeves and I was born in the US and moved to Berlin about 20 years ago. At university I did a BA in German Studies and later did my M.S. in Adult Education. While living in Berlin from 1993-2000 I decided I wanted to work in the field of intercultural communication, especially to eradicate the misunderstandings I saw at my time at BMW motorcycle factory in Berlin-Spandau that lead to loss of trust across cultures. I saw this leading to problems in relationship building, and lack of initiative in starting joint ventures which in the end impede innovation and also prevent global good will, which is more important today than ever.
- Do you think it is important for a company nowadays to know about intercultural communication and if so why?
I would say one of the biggest issues we still have on the global market is that not enough companies know about the impact of culture on business.
First of all, we have to learn how to identify culture as a possible stumbling block before we can address it. So when you hear things like “that was bizarre behavior”, “that was strange”, “these people are weird”, we may find out that these are cultural differences, or different norms and value systems, instead of one-off behavior. The danger here is that usually things we don’t understand we tend to judge negatively.
One of the most overlooked examples is to ask the question “How to have effective communication with Americans?” Many people, not just the Germans! are confused by the American communication style, thinking that Americans are not sincere and too friendly, even fake. And Americans, on the other hand, often have the perception that the Germans are cold in their communication style and not welcoming. Because of this style, Americans may pull back and think the Germans do not want to do business with them, which is usually not the case at all. But this is where misinterpretations and bad feelings may start.
There is a background to this phenomenon of expectations. Americans tend to expect a warmer communication style, always with a smile and American small talk to break the ice and start the business relationship.
This is all about learned behavior: Germans are taught to use a neutral communication style in voice, body and words, Americans are taught to be high energy, enthusiastic and connect quickly with others. And this is rooted in our histories. Isn’t that interesting?
So in the end communication competence and polite behavior mean two different (or more!) things.
- What are the basics an international manager should be aware of when considering doing business in or relocating to foreign markets?
There are some general key characteristics or styles that we know of that are important for high performance and success of people and business working across different cultures:
Number one is flexibility. We look for somebody who is willing to try something new if they just found out about it five minutes ago.
We are looking for openness and people who can withhold judgment. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have your personal beliefs, but it does mean that you can accept that other have values and styles that are different than your own. It means that you are able to find commonalities even if it looks like there are not any. It means that you can proactively go out and find connections with people that are similar to you in order to foster cooperation and trust and get the job done.
One surprising thing that we look for is someone who can tolerate failure well. This is a hard one because most people at high levels have not failed very much so sometimes when they fail they fail big. This can lead to other issues as they may not have a strong skill set to deal with failure.
Finally, there is the ability to work in ambiguous situations, meaning when rules, communication style, expectations or intentions are not clear. A successful international manager can diplomatically go and get information to find out what is going on and at the same time manage insecurity and stress when the context is fuzzy. We call this dimension “Uncertainty Avoidance”, first coined by Gert Hofstede. He says that cultures deal in different ways when things are not clear. Some people prefer clear verbal or written rules and others less so, preferring to negotiate on an individual basis based on the specific situation.
These are the broad concepts, it gets more specific when managers get to their markets where they need to have some understanding of country and regional cultures.
- In general and since you are aware of Spreadshirt and its business model, what cultural dimensions do you think are important to look at when thinking about entering a new country?
From looking at the website it looks highly individualistic. Again, I am using the technical definition of cultural Individualism, which is about flexibility, single-person focused and highly tailored to personal choice. I was really surprised when you told me it is a German company. Your Marketing Director has a well-grounded sense of what Americans want to buy, or their purchasing behavior. I would put this person on an individualistic scale right up there with the Americans, which is a 91 on the Hofstede scale. It is the highest in the world together with Australia. Interestingly, this is also what we often observe of entrepreneurs in general: they usually have a higher Individualism preference than their home country norm.
On the Spreadshirt website I see these characteristics:
a high-level of what Americans love and complain about all the time–choice. Spreadshirt is giving that choice on a hyper-active level – and it is fun, another high American value. You can create almost anything, you can express yourself and, for example, make fun of government, politicians, and celebrities. It is also a mix and match style, very experimental, which appeals to the American trial and error based culture.
I believe that all of Spreadshirt’s features I have seen would really appeal to individualistic preferences. To sum up, high flexibility, choice, fun, express yourself, trial and error and high free speech values on pop culture and government are all strong American values.
Patrick Witt, Spreadshirt
Senior Sales & Influencer Manager US (2016)