To Truly Delight Local Customers, Take a Lesson from KitKat

Working in B2B software, I’m often asked for inspirational examples of how the “best of the best” companies really crush it with localization. The truth? The best examples are usually not found in the B2B space. True excellence in delivering highly local products and experiences is more often found in the B2C space, where companies adapt their offerings much more to local preferences. In the process, they truly seek to understand their customers in each market.

One fun example that came up in a meeting with some of my colleagues this week was the success of KitKat in Japan. Flavors like “grilled potato KitKat,” “apple vinegar KitKat” and “brandy and orange KitKat” are so far outside the culinary range of most Westerners, that we could never even conceive of such a different product, let alone propose it on behalf of local customers.

How does this apply if you’re a US-based company selling internationally? Obviously, you can get away with selling your standard “global” product in any market. The problem is, the product you think of as a “global” product might not actually be a global product. Often, your “global” product is just a local, US-based product that happens to have strong appeal in many countries. Perhaps it will work just fine in many markets, just like the “normal” KitKat also sells in Japan. But to build a truly strong relationship of trust with local consumers, and to grow it from there, customization is usually required. (That’s another hallmark of market intensification, which is another phase beyond basic market entry.)

Fortunately, you don’t always have to go so far as KitKat by creating an entirely new “flavor” to make customers happy, along with all the unique accompanying packaging and marketing. Think of Starbucks, which offers certain menu items as standard around the world, but has locally relevant offerings and ingredients, on top of and in addition to the standards. The company’s branding is consistent globally for the most part, and much of the infrastructure and even training for employees can be leveraged from place to place. But often, even minor local product adaptations go a long way to make customers happy. They don’t always have to be a major or costly undertaking to have a big impact.

What this example highlights is that we *all* have a familiarity bias for our home culture, and often, we simply *don’t know what we don’t know* about another culture. So, it’s best to assume there are many things we don’t know, versus assuming that what we’ve done in our home country will always work in another country. Often, we’ll find that we actually have more in common than not, but if we never even ask the question, we’ll often miss out on small modification that can make a huge impact on local success.

So, as people working in business to help our companies reach customers in local markets, how can we check our assumptions? Talk to local customers. Ask them for feedback. And if you can’t, ask the people closest to your local customers, which are usually the employees who interface with them.

Who knows, you might find that instead of a plain old KitKat (or your business’s standard “global” equivalent), maybe a “cherry blossom KitKat,” a “bear-shaped KitKat,” or something else you never thought of, is a much better path to truly delighting your customers. The point is, you have to be willing to ask.

Nataly Kelly

Nataly leads localization at HubSpot and has previously held diverse roles in marketing, international operations and strategy, research, and product development. Her latest book is "Found in Translation" (Penguin). She writes for Harvard Business Review on topics of international marketing and global business. Nataly works remotely from New England, having lived in Quito (Ecuador), Donegal (Ireland) and the rural Midwest where she grew up.

One comment

  • This is such an interesting article. It made me think of one of my favorites chocolate from Garoto in Brazil. It is a bombom made with banana paste filling and covered with milk chocolate, or my daughter’s favorite Mexican lollipop that is made of tamarind and covered in chili powder. It is very different of what we imagine sweets could be like in the US. Understanding local behavior, preferences, and practices makes a big difference on the success of a product and service.

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