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With an increasing emphasis on global brands, marketing effectiveness and return on investment how do you provide effective marketing training that recognises cultural differences between affiliates?

ivyWith an increasing emphasis on global brands, marketing effectiveness, marketing efficiency and return on investment, more and more pharmaceutical companies are realising that the development of their marketing skills is key to extracting maximum commercial value from the increasingly costly, and risky, R&D process.

Yet, working efficiently and effectively with skilled and knowledgeable marketing teams often means drawing from an international, cross-cultural pool of talent. Much is made of cultural differences when considering working in Islamic and Asian countries, but we tend to forget that the cultures of the European countries can also be very different.

One approach, seen among various healthcare companies, is to develop an international, or global, 'marketing academy', or a 'core content' approach, which is seen as the company 'way' of marketing. The principles and practice to which the company wants its marketers within all affiliate countries to adhere are developed and then the relevant knowledge, skills and attitudes are taught to help ensure concordance and delivery.

This is clearly the way forward for the international organisation with global brands and global processes. However, from country to country within Europe, big differences exist between markets, businesses and personnel, which are not purely language based. How do companies provide effective training that recognises these differences? Is an 'umbrella approach' actually the right one?

Different approach
Companies, specifically those developing marketing training programmes, need to recognise the differences in the personnel make-up of all the affiliates. These profiles can vary considerably from country to country.

Holland, for example, is a highly developed, mature marketing place. Pharmaceutical marketers tend to be business graduates, well trained and fluent in English with a highly commercial background often rooted in medical sales. They will have also gained marketing 'exposure' from the general market-led commercial environment, albeit in an unstructured way and with no assessment of the quality of all the marketing they experienced.

On the other hand, in Russia, Bulgaria, Romania and the Ukraine, marketing personnel are often medically qualified. They 'graduate' from the salesforce into marketing positions. The nature of the sales call in these markets is also very different, where the ethos is to discuss issues with doctors, rather than employ a 'five-minute sell' used in some Western markets.

When moving into product management, they often have no marketing training and little experience of marketing, either from their local FMCG or pharmaceutical markets, meaning they have a limited frame of reference to draw on.

In addition, they work in much less developed, potentially more competitive markets with global brands, copies of global brands, local brands and generics. However, they are well-educated, intelligent, and capable of taking on complex information relatively quickly.

Overall, the approaches to marketing in these countries may need to be very different from developed Western European markets and, consequently, the 'one-size-fits-all' approach to marketing training would not appear to be the most effective way to bring marketers across all affiliate countries to the same level.

Market sophistication
Here is an area where the national differences become obvious within the international pharmaceutical industry.

Within Europe, there are very different support systems across the various countries. Sophisticated markets have many specialist healthcare agencies that inexperienced marketers can lean on
to provide them with specialist services. Many agencies also run their own training days for clients that help them to understand the different aspects of marketing and services for which they are particularly responsible.

By working closely with agencies, marketers are able to learn the ropes and are given 'hands-on' experience of how to manage projects.

Yet, in Russia for example, this is not the case. There is not a specialised service sector to provide this type of support and marketers in Russia do not have anyone to help or guide them in this way. They have to do everything themselves.

Therefore, the implementation of principles in some Eastern European countries is often much more of an issue. Following the training course, there is then additional need for support to help them solve problems and develop their skills, rather than leaving them to pick up these skills from elsewhere.

Fit with culture
We are all aware of the northern versus southern cultures in the old EU, and this too can have implications for personnel development. Research has shown that there are 'high-context' and 'low-context' cultures. In 'low-context' cultures, such as England, Switzerland, Germany and Scandinavia, the meaning of the message is expressed explicitly by the words and affected less by the context.

In 'high-context' cultures, such as Japan, Arabic states and France, the context in which something is said strongly affects the meaning of the message. Only a small part of the meaning comes from the words. The speaker and how they speak is important, so delivery can have a significant effect - positively or negatively.

Consequently, interactions between high- and low-context peoples can be problematic or difficult. We all know stories of Japanese finding Westerners offensively blunt, while Westerners can find Japanese to be secretive and bafflingly unforthcoming with information.

In Europe, however, the French can, for example, feel that Germans insult their intelligence by explaining the obvious, while Germans can feel that French managers provide little direction.

Fit with language
Last, but by no means least, is the issue of spoken language. An increasing number of companies use English as the business language. However, that does not mean that all people in all European countries speak English to the same standard.

In addition, some of them may have learned English from non-native English speakers. In our experience, this can result in a lack of confidence in speaking among participants when faced with someone speaking

While their English is perfectly workable, they do not want to fall below standard in front of the workshop leader.

In addition, some languages do not have an equivalent word for popular or well-used English terms (particularly in marketing), let alone English idioms and turns of phrase. Consequently, care is needed in the English used and a more in-depth explanation of what is meant by a particular term may be required.

Local or central training
One dilemma facing international pharmaceutical companies is whether to provide training at a local level for individual markets, or centrally, with mixed country groups.

In mixed country groups, participants are able to share learning from their own specific markets and they also have the opportunity to build good intra-company networks with their colleagues.

Senior management can also be involved (provided the location is convenient) and everyone will hear the same message.

However, there are drawbacks. Application of the different techniques cannot be tailored to specific local market conditions. Examples given may not be applicable to, or may not work in, certain countries. Techniques may not be applicable, or workable, in some markets and so, for the participants from these markets, some of the training could be seen as irrelevant. They may, therefore, need additional help in translating the learning into practice.

For single country groups, learning can be tailored to specific market issues. Local market brands can be used as case study material, which is more relevant and applicable to the group. Application of the techniques to the local market and the brands can also be practised in the workshop, rather than left until later.

However, one potential negative is that sometimes local relationships and hierarchies can get in the way of the training. There is also a risk, although manageable through quality control, that by tailoring the training, certain key messages will be diluted. Clearly, involvement by senior management is also more difficult.

Overall, neither solution is perfect. Either can work but the negatives need to be managed and minimised.

An age old quote by Confucius in around 450 BC states: 'Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand.' This is obviously as relevant today as it was then and can be applied in particular to training marketers.

Learning styles
As well as the differences referred to above, it is also important to remember that everybody, wherever they are from, learns differently. How do we take account of this diversity?

David Kolb developed a learning style model that recognises this issue. His highly influential book, entitled 'Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development', was published first in 1984 and his ideas subsequently had a huge impact on the development of learning models that seek to reduce a person's potential to just one dimension (such as intelligence).

Kolb's model is based on two lines of axis (continuums): the first focuses on our approach to a task (whether we prefer to do or watch), and the second asks what our emotional response to the task is (whether we prefer to think or actually feel).

The theory sets out these four preferences, which are also possible different learning methods:

  • doing (active experimentation)
  • watching (reflective observation)
  • thinking (abstract conceptualisation)
  • feeling (concrete experience).

The combination of where our preference lies on each axis produces four possible learning style types:

  • activist (preferring doing and feeling, or concrete-active)
  • reflector (preferring watching and doing, or concrete-reflective)
  • theorist (watching and thinking, or abstract-reflective)
  • pragmatist (thinking and doing, or abstract-active).

Consequently, it is important to recognise the need for these different styles and offer learning in a variety of ways to ensure all preferences are covered.

Knowledge becomes skill 
Workshops and training programmes are limited in what they can deliver. However, there can be big differences in the quality of the approaches, as judged by subsequent application of the concepts delivered.

Rather than thinking about a workshop as just imparting knowledge, attempts should be made to start developing the use of that knowledge (ie skill) during the workshop. While the 'active' learning approach is common nowadays, what is often missing is help for participants to understand how to apply the learning effectively in their own role, particularly if the concept comes from outside healthcare.

Examples of good and bad practice from outside healthcare can be used, provided the practical steps to implementing the approach within healthcare are explained clearly and understood.

To be most effective, however, training needs to be tied into application as soon as possible - learning is known to decay very rapidly unless it is applied. Short training courses can often only provide knowledge and a limited degree of skill development. To cement the learning and personnel development people need to apply the knowledge in a meaningful way to a real-life situation, to help them transfer the theory into reality.

In addition, it should be recognised that learning is a constant process and it is essential to provide the means to further develop, or cement knowledge, from the programme after trainees have left the classroom environment.

Tailored for ultimate consistency 
Training needs to reflect the business culture of each affiliate country and developing the marketing capabilities of healthcare organisations will be an important part of ensuring companies continue to be profitable.

If the process is to be effective, however, each market may need a tailored approach, but one that will bring all personnel working in the corporation up to the same, consistent level.

In the highly developed markets, personnel will need to be stretched further with more sophisticated approaches to allow them to compete effectively, while those working in less developed and/or less sophisticated markets will need to be provided with realistic and meaningful training and support that makes their marketing more effective.

The Author
Dr Paul Stuart-Kregor is a director of the MSI Consultancy (

2nd September 2008


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