How International Product Marketing Can Make or Break Your Global Business

Taking your product into multiple markets around the world isn’t easy. In fact, it’s an area of marketing that often trips up even the most seasoned of marketing veterans! If product marketing is art and science, international product marketing is fine art and rocket science.

As digitization continues, and more businesses are global these days, their product marketing efforts naturally are too. In this post, I’ll share some important advice, in the form of the most common mistakes companies make with regard to international product marketing, so that you can learn from them, avoid these pitfalls, and help your company succeed beyond just its home market.

Mistake #1: Overestimating the Halo Effect of Your Domestic Brand

Your brand is more than just your logo and tagline. It’s the perception people have of your company and product. How your company is perceived will vary from one culture, country, and language to the next. And yet, so many companies fail to invest the time and resources in this critical area. If you don’t devote any energy to developing a local brand, you jeopardize your chances of success in the market in the long term. Many companies believe they have a “halo effect” from strong performance in their domestic market when they go into new countries. Often, they overestimate this by a tremendous margin.

Building a strong brand in any market takes time, and requires consistent messaging, a clear value proposition, and a focus on delivering value to your local customers. This must be done in a way that resonates for them and feels authentic, not forced or foreign. If you fail to establish a clear value proposition or messaging in a new market, this often results in confusion and lower adoption of the product than you might see in your company’s home market.

So many times, business leaders look at lackluster local go-to-market (GTM) performance metrics and wonder, “Is the local sales team struggling with ramp time?” or “Is it a regional demand generation problem?” Countless hours (even months) are spent hunched over spreadsheets full of KPIs, digging for explanations of local and regional performance gaps in other metrics. Companies waste tons of time in analysis paralysis when the answer is quite simple: If you don’t focus on building local brand awareness, all of your other GTM metrics are going to suffer.

The brand awareness blocker is a very real, and very common challenge for regional marketing and sales leaders at global companies. Pleading for local investment in “brand” tends to get sneezed at, even met with repulsion in some cases. But, when local marketing teams are asked to scale demand without the necessary investments in brand that will help along conversion rates at every stage, they are set up for failure. Unless you want to spend way more on demand generation than you should, listen to your regional marketing teams and let them make ongoing investments into building a local brand.

Need an example of how international product marketing should work, when combined with brand-building? Samsung is an example of a technology company that has built a strong local brand in many markets, despite being headquartered in South Korea. In India, for example, Samsung has invested heavily in building its brand by tailoring its products and marketing campaigns to the local audience. The company has created products specifically for the Indian market, such as smartphones with larger batteries and faster charging times, which are important features in a country where power outages are common. Samsung has also partnered with local retailers and ecommerce platforms to ensure its products are widely available and accessible to consumers. The company has used endorsements from local celebrities and athletes to build credibility and awareness, and has also sponsored local events and cultural initiatives to demonstrate its commitment to the community. All these efforts have helped Samsung become one of the top brands in India, with a strong reputation and loyal customer base.

Mistake #2: Not Researching Your Local Competition

Conducting research on your competitors in each market will help you understand how your product fits into the local landscape. This can help you differentiate your product and create a unique value proposition. If you enter a new market without understanding the local competition, it will result in a failure to differentiate your product, and you will ultimately lose market share.

At so many companies, even very large ones, business leaders focus primarily on the competitors just in their home market, which is often their largest market. However, when they forget to look past their home base, they don’t seek to understand their most important competitors in local markets. This is incredibly important for international product marketing to succeed. Usually, product marketing messages are closely intertwined with sales enablement content. But for sales enablement content to truly accelerate sales velocity, it needs to address head-on the most common concerns, pain points, and competitive threats that salespeople will face in their daily interactions with customers. Well guess what? Those tend to be a bit different in each market!

Whenever I mention the fact that messaging and differentiation will need to change in each market, I often see a familiar look of fear creep into the eyes of leaders. No one likes complexity, and our instinct is to shy away from the hard stuff in favor of simpler solutions. But where international growth is concerned, these differences actually have a major impact on the sales metrics, both in the short and long term.

You simply can’t boost sales velocity very much at a global company if you fail to differentiate your product marketing by country. If you fail to adapt, one of two things will happen. Your best salespeople in new markets will either (1) take matters into their own hands and go “off-script” and end up creating their own materials, or (2) they’ll quit and take their talent with them to some other company, perhaps to your local competitor. You definitely don’t want that. But yet, companies routinely pour tons of investment into hiring salespeople, training them, managing them, and re-hiring and repeating the cycle, instead of doing the necessary local market research up front to enable them to all collectively perform better.

Uber is an example of the importance of researching local competitors for each market it enters. When Uber first entered the Chinese market, for example, it faced fierce competition from local ride-hailing companies like Didi Chuxing. Uber conducted extensive research to understand the local market and consumer behavior, and developed a tailored strategy that included lower prices, a more convenient payment system, and better customer service. The company also partnered with local businesses and organizations to build brand awareness and gain customer loyalty. Despite the challenges, Uber’s efforts paid off, and the company was able to gain a foothold in the Chinese market, growing its user base and market share. Although Uber eventually sold its Chinese business to Didi Chuxing, the company’s experience in China demonstrates the importance of researching local competitors and developing a tailored strategy for each market.

Mistake #3: Not Paying Attention to Cultural Differences

Different cultures have different values, beliefs, and behaviors. To effectively market your product internationally, it’s important to understand the cultural nuances of your target markets. You need to tailor your message to resonate with your audience in each market. What’s complicated about living in a globalized world is that often, product marketing campaigns can spread quickly. Especially when there is humor involved, expensive, well-intentioned campaigns that might work well in a company’s home market can fall flat in certain markets, and can actually do damage to a brand in other markets.

What’s the reason so many companies fail to consider cultural difference? I think the reason is quite simple: because they’re unaware of what those differences might be. It’s really hard for someone to imagine how people in another country or language might react to a product marketing campaign if they simply don’t know much about that target market. Often, product marketing leaders aren’t given much access to regional or in-country resources. And conversely, at some companies, they do have access but continually fail to listen to those voices. It’s hard to build bridges sometimes across geos, to enable these types of teams to work harmoniously together, but it’s important for any global company’s long-term success.

Apple is an example of a technology company that understands cultural differences. In China, for example, the company has made several changes to its products and services to better cater to the local market, which in turn, leads to much better local product marketing campaigns. For instance, Apple Pay supports UnionPay, China’s national bankcard payment network, which is the preferred payment method in the country. Apple also introduced new features to the iPhone’s camera app specifically for Chinese consumers, such as the ability to recognize and translate Chinese characters. Additionally, Apple has been investing in the Chinese market by opening more stores, creating more jobs, and supporting local developers.

Mistake #4: Failing to Partner with Local Influencers

What could be better for capturing the attention of local customers than seeing well-known people and other brands they love, in combination with your company and products? Influencer marketing is a powerful way to reach your local audience. Every country has their own batch of local celebrities and notable figures. Partnering with local influencers can help you establish credibility and reach a wider audience. This is especially true when you’re trying to bring a foreign brand into a new market, and your brand does not have much local visibility. When companies try to market their products in a new country without partnering with local influencers or experts that have their own high levels of brand awareness and credibility, their efforts often result in low engagement and poor reach.

Airbnb is an example of a technology company that partners with local influencers when launching its products overseas. When the company first entered the Japanese market, for example, it collaborated with local celebrities and social media influencers to promote its services. Airbnb worked with popular Japanese comedian, Naomi Watanabe, to create a series of videos that showcased unique accommodations available on the platform. The videos were shared widely on social media, generating buzz and raising awareness of the brand. Airbnb has also worked with other local influencers in various markets, such as Indian actress Priyanka Chopra and Chinese actor Huang Xuan, to promote its services and build credibility with local audiences. These partnerships have helped Airbnb establish a strong presence in different markets and demonstrate its commitment to understanding and connecting with local cultures.

Mistake #5: Not Localizing the Right Content

One very common mistake companies make is thinking they need to localize everything they offer in their domestic market when going into new countries, especially ones that speak other languages. I often advise the exact opposite. Don’t localize everything – that’s a waste of time and money, and in fact, is usually not even possible no matter how well funded you may be. Instead, focus on localizing the 20% or so of the content that actually matters for that market.

Again, here is where people tend to resort to simplistic ideas, such as “Let’s make a list of all the content that exists, and start localizing all of it.” Sadly, this is a bad idea. But this is also human instinct! We all tend to want simple answers, and let’s face it, it’s a lot of work to figure out what content actually matters. Most companies don’t even do a great job of categorizing and logging all the content they have created over time, to even enable them to get good answers to the question. Ask them to try to prioritize it, and it starts to feel like Mission Impossible.

For this reason, you’ll need to have someone in charge who (1) truly knows the market and (2) has the autonomy to do what’s best for their market. Regional leaders, balanced with knowledge of global objectives for the business and international strategy, should have a strong say in determining what gets localized and what does not, in which order of priority.

Not all content matters equally. In our marketing heart of hearts, all of us know this to be true. So apply that lesson to international product marketing as well. Don’t try to do localization for every single campaign, every email, every single asset, or every piece of content. Focus on the things that matter for your local markets, even if that requires you to spend some time figuring that out. Then, you can not only localize, but perhaps experiment with native content, marketing localization, and transcreation too. Lean on your local team members in country — they’re always the ones who know the markets best!

Seek to Bridge the Very Real Gaps Between Domestic and New Markets

Local and regional go-to-market teams, I often argue, have the toughest jobs at any company going global. They carry much of the same weight and stress that a founding team at a start-up does, trying to quickly pivot, plug all the operational gaps the local business has, while also frantically trying to scale up their presence in a new market. Employees on the ground in new markets are trying to help take their company global, but they often suffer from many challenges. Proximity bias, familiarity bias, and other types of biases often creep into decision-making and often into budgeting decisions, giving the domestic market a privilege over the new markets.

For that reason, product marketing initiatives need to not only consult with local leaders and factor them in, but truly listen to them, get to know local customers, and actually build international product marketing programs around the very real and distinct needs of their local markets. There’s a big difference between a local market merely being included or tagged onto a campaign, and making an effort to intentionally focus on a new local market. Make sure you go out of your way to do the latter, instead of the former.