Amanda Knox and the challenge of global marketing

2nd October 2013

The retrial of Amanda Knox, the 26-year-old American exchange student charged with the 2007 murder of her British house mate, Meredith Kercher, began yesterday near the scene of the crime, in Italy.

Since the perplexing and tragic events of the night of 1st November 2007 in medieval Perugia – All Soul’s Day demands that Italians visit cemeteries en masse to pay their respects to the dead – and Knox’s subsequent arrest, her image and unfurling story have been omnipresent in the tabloid pages of USA, UK and Italy.
The press, no matter in which country, seems to agree that ‘Foxy Knoxy’ is both beautiful and newsworthy, but the narratives of Knox’s character told are strikingly, profoundly different.
It is as if they are stories reported from different planets. And in some ways – they are.
In Italy, Amanda Knox is depicted as a sexualised vixen with an angel’s face. For Italians, Knox is the fallen one, acting on November 1st, the night of the dead, and ringleader in a drug-induced adventure of sexual deviance gone tragically wrong.
In the USA, the fresh-faced protagonist is characterised as a naive, beautiful-but-quirky college kid caught in a mire. The American press sees Amanda Knox as ingenue, drawn from the pages of Henry James, ensnared in a tale of misunderstanding and misogyny in a foreign land whose laws and ethics seem deeply flawed, mostly because they are not American.
In the UK, Knox is treated to a beautiful-but-dangerous-slut depiction, their press erring on the side of the British victim whilst taking every opportunity to print picture upon picture of her strikingly photogenic face, breathlessly recounting leaked journal entries regarding her amorous adventures with guys.
How can one person, and one set of facts, simultaneously have several meanings?
Is there not one single truth to be discovered, and told?
This quandary, the quandary of how culture and context shape the stories told, is one that besets marketing as we shape and narrate ever more global brand stories to our identified target consumers.
From a distance, there is much to unite the human experience, no matter the culture. In the long grass, however, there is much that separates them. This is true when I compare USA to Italy. But it is also true when I compare Dublin to Clare.
The implications are profound for how we build brands and do business.
I had a front-row seat as part of the Mars marketing team which, in the 1990s, sought to build a global confectionery portfolio from within Mars’ many regional brands.

The brands had been handled on a piecemeal basis for much of the preceding 60 years. M&Ms did not yet exist in Europe (remember Treets?); Twix in the UK and USA was named Raider in Continental Europe; Snickers in the USA was called Marathon in Europe. Recipes, packaging, weights and communication varied, often on a country-by-country basis.

And yet, Mars had a vision of global one-ness which it sought to enact as only private businesses can. It acquired the rights to global communications platforms – the Olympics, the World Cup – which offered the opportunity to transcend regionality and have ‘one conversation’. This was the marketing era of ‘presence marketing’ and ‘one voice’ campaigns. It was also the days before the internet. Such singularity of purpose seemed vaguely breakthrough.

But could it work? Well, let me employ a very eloquent German phrase in response: Jein! – a fulsome mixture of  ja (yes) and nein (no).

It was so. Global marketing indeed can relate one global narrative, but the way this narrative is brought to life and finds traction, energy and warmth in any individual culture varies deeply and subtly.
Take Snickers, for example.
We discovered that our brand’s offer of hunger satisfaction – ostensibly a basic human need – had different calibrations in different cultures.
In southern Europe, chocolate was seen as a special treat and could not believably talk the language of ‘food substitute’ that Northern Europeans embraced. ‘King Size’ was effectively a meal of chocolate peanuts in the UK, but an aberration in Italy in the 1990s. (Note how things have changed – how cultures can imp[ose their will, one onto the other…)
In Russia – a market just opening at the time – the conversation about ‘hunger satisfaction’ proved mostly irrelevant as the Russians still had not understood that Snickers was made of chocolate and peanuts together. There was little benefit in dramatising the emotional hook if the functional underpinning was not understood.
Meanwhile, in the USA, where Snickers had long been the leading chocolate bar, consumers were interested only in emotional messaging, and indeed demanded more exciting riffs on an ever familiar theme. They were, as it were, over ‘hunger’ and all into ‘satisfaction’.
The thing I recall most is how much we had to learn by trying, failing and learning some more. It was a costly, time-consuming, debilitating and confusing process as we went through it. Understanding that seems obvious in retrospect most certainly did not appear so at the time.
Brand owners often have ambitions for their brands’ transcendent qualities which do not play out in reality. There is something in an owner’s DNA which rails against ‘regional variation’ as if it is a fantasy creation of market teams who simply need to get with the strategy.
And yet, in the end, the local sensitivity for how a brand’s story will play in the local market is all.
The truism, born in mathematics and environmentalism and imported into business, that ‘thinking globally, acting locally’, makes sense.
Every brand has many stories to tell. Deciding which stories to choose, and which tonality to use, is deeply challenging and demands sensitive thinking. Global brands are built through the weaving of a singular strategy with local warmth and nuance.
The act of marketing is the act of balancing: a desire for sameness, a recognition of difference; a belief in the efficiency of ‘one voice’, an acknowledgement of the power of bespoke. Global marketing must manage these diverse conversations and bring them to harmony.
Amanda Knox illustrates how a single occurrence and a single person can become wildly different stories, narrated through the prism of cultural understanding gone vaguely feral.
And yet, it is striking how none of these narratives tells the real truth. Each culture seeks to uncover more, to reveal what really happened. In the regional hype, something is lost. An implicit frustration lingers. The regional press has not fully done its job.
Each knows that there is a bigger, more global, story to tell.
Brian McIntyre. October 2013. Orchard Brand Agency.  

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