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International Marketing Strategies: Top-Down or Bottom-Up?

Feb 10, 2021

By Andrea Tartaglia – Co-Founder/Director @ The Marketing Leaders Ltd.

 

I love international marketing.

Since moving to the UK over 20+ years ago, I have developed my career in regional, international and global roles in large US companies.

I have learnt to operate effectively as an international leader, navigating the organization(s) and finding the best way to add value in each of the roles I played.

And I have witnessed how companies operate on a global scale, with a range of different models and processes. Some more effective than others.

Over the years, I have seen it all.

The best way of describing the different organizational  and operational models in relation to international marketing is a pendulum that keeps swinging.

 

On one side of the pendulum’s swing, you have a very centralized approach where strategies and tactics are developed by the home office, sent out to the field and implemented following a strict guidance from the top. I call this the Top-Down approach.

On the other side, you have a completely decentralized approach where most of the thinking and the implementation happens at local level, with little or no influence and guidance from the home office. This is what I call the Bottom-Up approach.

I witnessed organizations move from one extreme to the other depending on a variety of factors: the global relevance of products/brands, the thinking of the leadership teams, the market conditions, the lifecycle of the products/brands, etc.

And each approach was associated with a different distribution of responsibilities, accountability and ownership of the overall strategies and results.

Obviously, each of these ‘extreme’ models has pros and cons. Both can be effective (again depending on certain conditions) and have delivered success to the companies that have adopted them.

However, I found that for me the most effective way of operating – spoiler alert! – is in the middle (as often happens in life): with a combination of Top-Down and Bottom-Up.

Let’s unpack this a little. As ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ mirror each other, I will focus on the 3 most relevant advantages of each approach. It will become clear what the disadvantages are as they are the flip side of ‘pros’. This is a simplistic way of describing the 2 models, however I think it captures their essence.

 

The Top-Down Approach 

 

As mentioned, the Top-Down approach is the model followed by Companies that empower the home office to ‘run the show’.

Accordingly, the marketing strategy is defined by the teams in the headquarters (or reporting to the headquarters in case roles are geographically dispersed). Tactics and assets are created centrally, possibly even localized, and then served to the regions and local offices for implementation.

The advantages of this approach are multiple:

  •  The goals, strategies and tactics are developed by the team that is closer to the overall goals and strategies of the company (beyond marketing). It is natural for the international/global marketing team to be more knowledgeable of the overall context for the company and its products/brands. This is because of the proximity to the leadership team and the fact that the marketing team is part of the higher decision process, which informs the direction the marketing strategies take.
  • The same strategy and assets are applied globally which ensures a greater level of consistency. The products/Brands are delivering the same messages no matter where you are in the world and there is no or little variance, providing a very coherent consumer experience.
  • The implementation of the marketing strategy is also very efficient, generating significant savings (imagine production costs, media costs in case of multi country deals, etc.). Nearly everything is arranged by the home office so there is very limited duplication of efforts.

 

The Bottom-Up Approach

In this case, the ownership of the marketing strategy and its implementation is given to the local teams, with limited input from the headquarters.

Again, there are several advantages with this operational model:

  • The goals, strategies and tactics are defined locally which means there is a much greater degree of local relevance. The local teams have the deepest understanding of the consumers and their needs, the competitive environment, the socio-cultural context and nuances. The marketing messages are likely to resonate more with the local consumer base as they are tailored specifically to them.
  • Empowerment and accountability are allocated to the local teams, which drives a greater level of ownership of the overall marketing strategy, its implementation and its results.
  • The local approach is also ideal to minimize certain risks For example, I mentioned above the cultural differences and nuances. These can unwillingly generate gross mistakes, as very well highlighted by Chris McPartlin in his blog post which you can find here:

https://www.themarketingleaders.com/blog/internationalization-know-where-you-go)

 

Hybrid models

  

Hybrid makes me think of cars… but that is not want I want to talk about.

What I described above are the two extremes in the ‘pendulum swing’. And there are a variety of different approaches in-between these two.

Here are some examples I have witnessed over the years, where responsibilities are shared differently or even assigned completely outside the home office, but the overall process remain in control of the headquarters:

  • Certain tasks are delegated to the field when it makes sense. For example, despite having a global trade marketing strategy and tactics, the management of certain clients is delegated to the country where the client is based. Think global retail: the global management of Carrefour is delegated to France, the global management of Tesco is delegated to the UK and so on.
  • More and more global responsibilities are assigned out of the headquarters to ‘centers of excellence’ located remotely. In this scenario, the strategy and its implementation are very much directed from the top, however it is recognized that the best skills might not be residing in the home office and are found elsewhere in the organization.
  • In the situation described above, the entire team responsible for a project is located in the ‘center of excellence’. A slightly different version of that is when responsibilities are assigned to individuals (not teams) that are geographically dispersed, while the overall leadership remains firmly in the home office.Advancements in technology (and what we are learning about effective remote working) are facilitating the adoption of this model.

 

The Top-Down-Bottom-Up model 

As mentioned, I believe the best approach for me is right at the center of the ‘pendulum swing’ or better with a combination of the Top-Down and Bottom-Up approaches, applying them both, benefiting from their advantages while reducing or eliminating their disadvantages.

I never gave this approach a name but for the sake of this article I am going to call it the Top-Down-Bottom-Up approach (very creative!).  

This is the way I have managed strategies and teams over the years and has proven to be for me thew most effective way to deliver results.

According to this approach, the development of an international marketing strategy (or any strategy) is a collaborative effort that takes into account the expertise and knowledge of everyone, in the headquarters and in the field.

Local teams are informed by the headquarters about the direction the strategy could take (top-down) and consulted before the strategy is finalized. This way, they have an opportunity to bring to the surface their needs and ideas (bottom-up), which will help the central team to devise a strategy that has more chances to be successful when implemented locally.

This process helps highlighting the key direction from the top with should consider the commonalities among different countries or regions while at the same time acknowledges the difference, which might result in slight deviations from the overall global directive.

Accordingly, the output is a global strategy, which I call a ‘strategic framework’, that is rigid enough to provide clear direction to the local teams in terms of what is expected from them while executing the strategy, and loose enough to allow for local input, creativity and ideation that address specific needs, which are best tackled at local level. 

Teams know they have to operate within the strategic framework, but they also know they have an opportunity to add value and enhance the overall marketing campaign by tweaking the executions to suit the local needs and nuances.

Operationally, the strategic framework is complemented by a toolkit of assets that facilitate the implementation of the strategy, including some assets to be used uniformly across all countries and some that can be adapted or used more creatively in the different geographies. 

Following this process, I get the best of both worlds:

  • A marketing campaign that is executed consistently across all geographical markets with a combination of global and localized assets, all coming from the same toolkit, giving strategic and creative cohesion to the campaign.
  •  Both the global perspectives and the local points of view are considered equally which means all ‘must haves’ are part of the strategy, toolkit and activations.
  •  The local teams feel part of the process. They helped developing the strategy and the tactics. They are given a certain room to make things locally relevant. All this creates a greater sense of ownership, empowerment and ultimately accountability, resulting in a deeper commitment to execute the campaigns to perfection.
  • With a blend of global and local direction and execution, the campaigns are more relevant locally and engage the consumers in a deeper way. And there is no risk of any ‘cultural faux-pas’ given that the local teams have been involved throughout the process and even more with the execution, which they were able to adapt to the local sensitivities.
  • Efficiencies are still delivered as the collaborative nature of this process avoids duplication of efforts. Savings are generated through the creation of the global toolkit, which is used by everyone eliminating the need to create many costly bespoke assets.
  • And finally, thanks to the involvement of the local teams at an early stage of the development of the marketing strategy, there is a greater chance of cross-pollinating great ideas across markets. Or even elevating local ideas and make them global is they are judged to be affective in reaching global goals.

Let’s have a look at a couple of examples of the Top-Down-Bottom-Up approach in action:

 

  • Please refer to the PlayStation 5 case history in The Marketing Leaders’ Knowledge House. This is a great example of a global strategy executed in a locally relevant way, consistently across many markets. The strategy is the same everywhere. The Brand is presented and communicated in the same way but the tactics by which this is achieved are completely relevant locally and therefore have a greater impact for the local consumers.

  • Think about a communication strategy that intends to use social media influencers to reach the consumers. According to the top-down approach, you would look for a few influencers with the largest number of followers, with limited or no consideration for their geographical location and local appeal. Most likely their content is in English and it is served in English globally, with maybe the option for some minor localization (subtitles for example). With few exceptions (influencers with true global appeal – say a movie or music superstar), the messages have no local relevance, and the campaign does not cut through, with the exception of English-speaking countries, and probably only the country where the influencers originate from. However, great efficiencies were achieved (a limited number of assets produced, just once for everyone). And the same messages are delivered everywhere so the Brand and the campaign are represented consistently. The bottom-up flipside is to allow all countries to find the most effective influencers by market and produce assets locally. In this case, the messages are totally relevant and therefore more effective (measured by whatever KPIs was agreed). However, there is a proliferation of assets being produced, at great cost. And there is the risk of delivering diverging or discordant messages for the Brand. In the top-down-bottom-up approach, the influencers strategy is agreed upon and followed by everyone. Influencers are vetted and briefed with local and global input, maintaining control over the messaging and the tone/look and feel of the executions. And production of assets is coordinated in a way to minimize duplication of costs (for example, just 1 set is produced and delivered to all markets as a green screen option, or influencers are all gathered in one location to use the same physical set)

 

In conclusion. 

As mentioned, I find that a more inclusive approach to international marketing works best for me. It is more in line with my general strategic thinking and leadership style and it has served me well over many years.

There are just a few more considerations that might help you defining what approach works best for you.

  • I pay particular attention to avoiding what I call the ‘ivory tower’ syndrome. What is it? This is when leaders in the headquarters lack connection with the markets and only think somehow inwardly. As I said earlier, these leaders have a very clear idea of what they want to achieve and the direction the marketing strategy should take. They are very knowledgeable and are the ultimate experts. However, they can benefit from opening up their field of vision and allow input from the markets to make sure their thinking can actually drive results at local level.
  • Effective communication is obviously a critical skill. There must be a healthy exchange between global and local teams and a willingness to listen and understand the different perspectives. This is very enriching from a personal point of view but also deform a commercial point of view. This is not to say that all inputs should always be acted upon, no matter what. There might be very good reasons why at times the input cannot be considered. But dialogue creates alignment, inclusion and empowerment which in turn will deliver results.
  • I think this next one is implied in everything I said, but it is so important I want to spell it out: a winning International marketing approach requires a great level of openness from all stakeholders. Global teams open to local input and vice versa.
  • As a byproduct of openness, I also pay attention to avoiding the ‘not invented here’ attitude. I have witnessed this too frequently among leaders in global positions, who are not open to ideas coming from the field. I have seen the same attitude in local leaders who think only their teams can develop effective marketing strategies and activations.
  • And finally, I pay attention to maintain agility and speed of action. Gathering input, collaborating and debating takes time. Time that is not always available. I find having a process around this allows for moving through it swiftly, without delaying the delivery of strategies, tactics and assets.

 The best course of action is to take advantage from the different points of view, gather input, seek collaboration and orchestrate all into a cohesive and effective marketing strategy that delivers consistency (and commercial results!) while allowing for some variances, combining the best thinking and expertise of everyone that could be involved in the development and implementation of the strategies and tactics, at global, regional and local level.