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Cultural intelligence: what butter on bagels can teach us

When British high-street sandwich chain, Prêt A Manger, decided to expand into the USA, it fell into the same trap as many other brands do: it made assumptions.

Their assumptions about the American people and what they liked to eat came back to bite them when they realised that Americans didn’t appreciate butter on their bagels.  It was fine for British consumers, but it definitely wasn’t fine for Americans who failed to see why their salmon and cream cheese bagels also had lashings of butter added.

It might seem like a trivial example but can a company’s international expansion really be de-railed by something so minor?

In a word, yes.  Throw-away comments, impulsive actions and unwarranted assumptions have brought many a brand giant to its humble knees.  Pret was lucky in that it was able to address the situation and make the necessary changes, but other organisations have had to live much longer with the consequences of their poor judgements; consequences that include falling share prices and even resignation.

A good example of this is the former CEO of BP, Tony Hayward, who admitted during an interview that he ‘wanted his life back’ after the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Unfortunately for Mr Hayward, he seriously misjudged the level of empathy that the American public held for him.  America wanted its ravaged coastline cleaned up, their wildlife protected and their jobs back (many people working in the fishing industry lost their income). People wanted to know more about the British company – its practices, its values and its leadership - and how it came to be embroiled in such a disaster.

To the American people, the fact that Mr Hayward was having a tough time was, quite frankly, tough.  Mr Hayward is, of course, only human and he made a mistake. His comments were not intended to alienate a culture, but that is exactly what they achieved.

The whole point of cultural intelligence is to navigate the complexities of another culture’s beliefs, behaviours, norms and values so that we can avoid miscommunication and misunderstanding as far as possible.  That includes the little things that can all too easily trip us up.  I often recount the story of an American business executive who thoughtlessly used his Japanese counterpart’s business card to clean between his teeth after a business meal.  Eighteen months of careful and meticulous groundwork to foster important relationships between the two very diverse cultures soon unravelled.

The moral of this story is to never underestimate the power of cultural influence. As we’ve seen, the most seemingly insignificant things can unravel your cultural investment and end up costing time and money.

To get it right, start with exploring everything you can about the target: find it, ask it, discover it, live it.  Immerse yourself in the culture and challenge yourself to question everything you think you know.

Take inspiration from Volkswagen who, following extensive research into the American market, made the extra investment in its US manufacturing to change the position of the gear stick.  The reason? To accommodate a bigger cup holder.  The company did its homework and knew that ‘small stuff’ like providing cup holders big enough to fit larger-sized US drinks was, in fact, a deal breaker.  So they changed it.

Now that’s cultural intelligence…

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