How Starbucks overestimated the English...
April 30, 2012 12:00 PM
Let's face it: we are not a socially adept nation.
It is well documented that we English lack social skills. That is to say that, although we crave the company of others just as much as the people of any national culture, we are just not very comfortable with dealing with other people. This has been most eloquently described by anthropologist Kate Fox, who writes very entertainingly about the English social 'dis-ease'.
She explains that this can be seen in a number of instances:
We are not actually fascinated with the weather. It is an accepted pretext because we are uneasy about starting up conversations and are too reticent to introduce ourselves directly to a stranger. So when we say "It's turned out nice again today" to a stranger at the bus stop, we are really saying "I'm available for conversation - would you like to talk".
The English are known for talking about the weather. It's not because we have great weather (we have horrible weather) - it's because we're not very good at being sociable.
In the corporate context we lack the natural social confidence of other cultures. How many times have you been uncertain whether to shake hands or not? Or offered a hand, retracted a hand and been left with it half-outstretched but ultimately ignored?
And do you kiss people on the cheek? Once? Twice? Or do you get it wrong, inadvertently turning your head the same way, and end up greeting the colleague rather more intimately than you intended. This is typical of our social gaucheness - something that many other cultures simply take in their stride.
Our social 'dis-ease' means that we prefer to joke about things than deal with them directly. Not funny "ha ha" humour, but gentle irony that allows us to express ourselves in a roundabout 'unearnest' way, which we are far more comfortable with.
Think about it: could an English businessperson get through a nervous meeting with a new client without making the odd self-deprecating joke? Of course not. Other nations do this too, but few rely on it as much as the English.
You give me your name, I give you a free latte
Anyway, all of this Englishness - and the cross-cultural issues that are associated with it - were brought into sharp relief last month with Starbucks' ill-judged "Tell Me Your Name" promotion. I have been involved with a number of international marketing projects with US-based clients in the B2B world and have always tried to avoid the assumption that the US campaign will automatically work in different cultures. It won't - and I'd say that Starbucks have made the same mistake.
The campaign went like this. Determined to promote the friendliness of their barristas and the welcome that you get in every Starbucks store, they offered various freebies on the condition that you give them your name.
One problem. This doesn't work in England!
In my local Starbucks, I noticed repeatedly that customers were either embarrassed at the prospect of sharing their name in a commercial context, or refused. Add to this that the Starbucks staff, aware of the impertinence of their question, were frequently too embarrassed themselves to ask.
Now, in other cultures - notably the US - it is far more acceptable to ask for someone's name. A New Yorker might start a conversation with a stranger by announcing his name first. Not so in England. In my experience, English people can talk for hours with strangers, yet only learn their name on leaving. "Sorry mate, what was your name?" "Oh, it's Dan" "Ah, great to meet you. Bye!"
One size doesn't fit all
Now correct me if I'm wrong, but I get the feeling that this particular campaign was cooked up in the US, and UK marketers got railroaded into implementing it. (Either that or they were simply too shy to refuse.)
It's a small thing, but crucial if you are investing thousands of pounds/dollars into a marketing campaign that hinges on the understanding of such nuances.
Here at Base One, we often handle international marketing campaigns, and do all we can to take cultural considerations into account. Give us a ring if you want to talk about it. Just ask for John.