Friday, September 24, 1999

Futurists think global

Authors: Study cultures

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Let's talk about the future, 98 days from now and beyond.

        On Dec. 31, futurist Marian Salzman, of Young & Rubicam's Brand Futures Group, will be taking no chances.

        “I'm absolutely insisting there be no travel (in the group) after about Dec. 5 into January, because I don't believe all the promises in relation to Y2K,” she said. “I'm the one who's going to hoard cash.” Buy a generator, buy bottled water, don't be anyplace you need to ride an elevator.

        That's not reassuring, given the fact that she's paid for exactly this kind of work — peering into crystal balls to advise companies on product strategies. She and Ira Matathia, who is CEO of the group, are not much less sanguine about what American companies are failing to grasp about the next decade.

        The two were in Cincinnati this week to sign copies of their book Next: Trends for the Near Future, first published in 1997 and now in its eighth edition.

        That might be the last, Mr. Matathia said, because publishers in the United States don't think Americans want to read about trends globally. Barriers are falling in Europe, cultures rising in Asia, and American domination of world trade — like it or not — is changing.

        The authors “take this point of view of one world and the impacts of globalization being completely different than they've ever been before,” he said. “Most of the American publishers who read the manuscript said Americans don't want to hear that and are really not inter ested in a point of view that talks about this global stuff.”

        The authors' attitude is: tough. Though many American companies talk about globalization, few have done anything about it.

        Take fast food. “Burger King is Burger King wherever you go,” Mr. Matathia said: same offering, same look, same promotional schedule.

        McDonald's, however, realized that it's not about burgers or what Americans like to eat. It's about the McDonald's experience: families supping together on food prepared fresh and quick. “If you go into a McDonald's anywhere in the world, there's a family play experience. They've kept what's magical,” Ms. Salzman said.

        You can get burgers, of course, but McDonald's isn't trying to shove beef off in India, or yellow mustard in Japan. In Norway, the best-selling sandwich is the McLox, with salmon. The company respects local tastes while preserving what makes a McDonald's special. “The identity is exactly the same; you're still going to get a Happy Meal with a gift,” Mr. Matathia said.

        Ms. Salzman said companies need to be more deliberate about understanding what other cultures want, because Europe and Asia are going to matter more than ever. American executives need more education about overseas cultures, more training in languages and more service overseas, she said.

        At the same time, “hyperlocal” markets are becoming more important, the authors said. These are what used to be called “affinity groups” — groups linked by common in terests, such as military veterans or flyfisherman.

        The power of these groups, however, has been heightened by the Internet. There are no geographic limitations and word spreads very quickly.

        What companies find is that hyperlocal markets are forming around values. Buying a Domino's Pizza, for instance, is a statement that a consumer is OK with a company supporting pro-life initiatives. “Companies are increasingly being called to task for points of view on things like abortion, and people are voting with their pocketbooks based on where companies stand on those kinds of issues,” Ms. Salzman said.

        And companies are not allowed to hide their values, because consumers demand to know them. Does your benefits plan, for instance, accommodate same-sex partners?

        “Companies are not going to be free and clear of scrutiny. (Their values) are going to be wrong to somebody. You have to start to figure out who you are, as far as your real DNA as a company,” Ms. Salzman said.


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