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Nothing in Common

Summer 2012

Nothing in CommontcbrPDF normal

How to do business in a world of difference.

By Dick Martin

Dick Martin is the author of, most recently, OtherWise: The Wisdom You Need to Succeed in a Diverse and Divisive World. Previously, he spent thirty-two years with AT&T, including five as executive VP of PR, employee communications, and brand management. His last feature written for the magazine was “Your Good Name: Before You Lose It,” in the Nov/Dec 2004 issue.

"Never before, perhaps, has a culture been so fragmented into groups, each full of its own virtue, each annoyed and irritated at the others." Historian Daniel J. Boorstin wrote those words in 1960. What would he make of us today?

Today, many of us feel surrounded by groups so different in behavior and belief we can’t see what we have in common. To one another, we are totally Other.

To pundits on the left, we are polarized economically, with the rich getting richer and middle class stagnating. To those on the right, we are polarized culturally, with secular sybarites on the two coasts and God-fearing, respectable people in the heartland.

In the United States, the sexual revolution of the 1960s still reverberates in the changing structures of the nation’s families, workforce, and social mores. Historic levels of immigration are changing not only the country’s complexion but also its culture. And in reaction, many people increasingly seek comfort in an ancient, visceral instinct—tribalism. America seems to be shattering along deep fault lines into tribes that occasionally touch but seldom mix. The social distance between people of different incomes and educations has never been greater. They live in different worlds. They don’t shop in the same stores, go to the same movies, or play the same sports. They don’t call, email, Tweet, or friend each other on Facebook. If they sat next to each other at a wedding reception, they’d probably have trouble striking up a conversation. If one were forced on them, they’d probably need an interpreter.

Globally, the world’s wealth is moving from the northern hemisphere to the southern and from west to east, as the population of developed countries ages and the developing world gives birth to a new middle class. Growth is “over there,” in unfamiliar countries with idiosyncratic tastes and customs.

At first, these issues may seem to belong, at best, on the margins of a businessperson’s ambit—something worthy of an hour on the agenda of an executive retreat, or perhaps a paragraph or two in a speech to the local Rotary Club. But acquiring the wisdom of dealing with these new tribes is not touchy-feely stuff—it’s a hardcore operational capability. Understanding the ways and whys of people unlike yourself is key to winning and keeping customers, managing today’s workforce, and relating to all the third-party activists who have an increasingly influential voice in where and how a company does business.

New Voices, New Publics

Being “OtherWise” sounds like good, old-fashioned public relations. But it actually turns the practice, as commonly understood, on its head. To many businesspeople, “good PR” is measured in buzz—the room tone of the modern marketplace. Good buzz is the pleasant melody of excited murmurs and swelling applause. Bad buzz is discordant, distracting, and disturbing noise. Managing buzz is a matter of clever orchestration—piping an agreeable tune into the marketplace and burying static under it.

As good as that sounds, there’s less to buzz than meets the ear. Fragmented audiences don’t reverberate to a single tune. Digital media have transformed people from passive observers into conductors and composers in their own right. Good PR no longer goes to those who can toot their horn the loudest but, rather, to those who can listen the closest. These fractious times call for greater attention to the quiet side of public relations: the listening and analysis that enables companies to make the right decisions.

Companies have never been under greater third-party scrutiny. Businesses have no choice but to deal with these new publics, not only because they threaten a company’s operating flexibility but also because they represent a new opportunity. The companies that learn how to engage them productively will gain a competitive edge in developing new markets and in creating products tailored to these publics’ needs. Conversely, those executives that act on the comfortable assumption that everyone sees the world as they do are headed for disaster.

Most multinational companies have already discovered this in foreign markets. Successful companies have learned that globalization requires more than a passport, a Berlitz guide, and a local “fixer” to make introductions and set up appointments. They invest heavily in understanding the cultural values of the countries in which they do business.

P&G spent three years studying the consumer market in China before introducing its first product in 1988. Its initial plan was to manufacture Tide detergent at a state-run factory it had purchased. But when an expat sent to the country to test some ads talked to actual consumers, she discovered the Chinese had low expectations of laundry detergents—getting clothes whiter or brighter was a low priority. On the other hand, concern about dandruff gave them high expectations of shampoo. Based on those insights, the company shifted production to Head & Shoulders.

Eventually, P&G sent people to live with typical Chinese families to observe how they went about their daily tasks, brushing their teeth, changing the baby, doing the wash, etc. The first toothpaste it introduced to the Chinese market had the flavor of jasmine tea because many local consumers consider tea a natural cure for bad breath and jasmine is the most popular flavor. Today, P&G not only has the best-selling toothpaste and shampoo in China—it is the country’s leading consumer-products company, with revenue of more than $1 billion.

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