US and Them

The do’s and don’ts for entering the North American market

Many Dutch (or European) brands that make the transatlantic crossing to the United States succeed. We all love those success stories. Like any successful trip, these stories often start with good preparation. And I do not just mean packing the right things. Hopefully you know where you want to go and have some idea of the goals you’re seeking to accomplish. But beyond where you’re going to set up shop and the growth/profit you imagine will follow, do you know your reason or purpose for going in the first place? And to leverage this, did you sufficiently deepen your knowledge of the destination so you can truly connect with US consumers starting the moment you arrive?

It starts with a mission

Before you can think about how you are going to stand apart and what you are going to accomplish in the North American market, you must dig deep and ask yourself why you are going. This is the emotional element that will help you connect with consumers more than anything and it needs to be very clear. On June 23rd, the Telegraaf published an article about Merijn Everaarts and his company Dopper. For everyone that doesn’t’ know Dopper, this is what you call a company with a mission which translates to a clear “why.” From their website: “Dopper wants to live in a world where people are aware of the environment, where we actively reduce single-use plastic waste, and where everyone, close to home and far away, has access to safe and fresh drinking water.” They do this by selling reusable design water bottles with a built-in cup. After pioneering in the Netherlands, Dopper and Everaarts believe they are now ready for the US, with a branch office in New York.

Chance of succeeding

Dopper has a distinctive product with a good story and it would be disappointing, no extremely disappointing, if they did not succeed in the US. The chance to that happening should have less to do with the product itself – which is fantastic, and much more to with any incorrect assumptions about communication around that product that Dopper makes as they launch. If Dopper assumes what has worked in the Netherlands (or Europe), will also work in the US, they may be in for a rough launch.

Recently my employer – the independent communications agency from Portland, Oregon, Sockeye – opened a branch in Amsterdam. Unlike the usual aggressive US invasion, we consciously chose to introduce ourselves under the title “Creative Consulate” – something more appropriate to Europe’s diplomatic culture. Because of my current position with them, I often have interesting conversations with strategic communications consultants within and outside the office, about communication here and there, in the US and Europe – US and Them.

Emotion as a success factor

What is striking, is that the most successful brands (including European brands) in the US strongly focus their communications on demonstrating their beliefs as a brand to emotionally connect with consumers, even more than they try to showcase how brilliant they are against their competition. In other words, they focus on appealing to consumers by talking about their consumers, not themselves. These are brands that provide answers to questions such as: why do we do what we do – the emotional purpose for our existence? How we (like you) are driven by this belief and manifest it in our products, services, and company culture? And what do we add to the lives of our consumers and possibly humanity, as a whole?

It is also striking that European brands that tend to not do well in the US, focus more on explaining who they are, where they come from and when they started. Rational propositions, however unique or interesting, are less likely to find a willing ear on the North American market – especially when every other European brand is trying to tell this story. It is not an eye-opener to say that Americans simply have a different relationship with brands (and each other) than Europeans. And that the deeper story behind the brand – however corny it may seem – is always a big success factor. Therefore, it surprises me that brands with US ambitions don’t take notice of this insight in their go-to-market strategy.

Belgium is a lovely city

Speaking about incorrect insights, knowledge, considerations and prejudices. It is no exception that Americans often think of Europe as a place with a singular culture and send their marketers here with that idea. What nonsense you might think. But the opposite is also true: the US, despite being just one country, should not be thought of that way. It is 50 states, each with it’s own unique culture, and various subcultures within each state. While politically, economically and legally the states are united as a nation, nuance in communication is important to effectively reach your target audience as you enter and grow in the US. Approaching the US as a homogeneous market is an error of judgment that too often makes the difference between success and failure.

Leander van Altena is director of new business & client service bij Sockeye Amsterdam