Dave Barry once said: “I can win an argument on any topic, against any opponent. People know this, and steer clear of me at parties. Often, as a sign of their great respect, they don’t even invite me.” The last 14 days, I have had the same feeling regarding my ability to write interesting blog posts about any controversial topic vaguely related to sales, business development and strategy, and within the formal constraints of a blog post: My ex-colleague from Silicon Valley stopped responding to my email requests for comments and insights, the managing director of a Norwegian marketing firm politely suggested: don’t go there.
The topic was the difference between US marketing and Norwegian marketing, and which approach is best.
It started out with a discussion about a specific video, for the X-Bow concept from Ulstein, a leading shipbuilder in Norway. Said this friend from Silicon Valley: “Nowhere in that very long and very expensive piece are there any data supporting the various advantages provided by the design of the X-Bow and X-Stern. They say there is less “windvaning” (“yaw” in aeronautics parlance)—but they don’t quantify it. They say there is less pitch—and don’t quantify that, either. In other words, they focus on image and neglect argument. American companies in the B2C space do this all the time of course. But technical marketers usually understand that they have to provide something resembling data.”
Methodologically, it seemed like a tractable problem: delineate the space to be studied, select some hundreds or thousands of ads from each culture, measure these ads along a number of dimensions, draw some brilliant conclusions, and check for statistical significance. (This is the approach typically taken when studying cultural differences, see for example Trompenaars’ ‘Riding the waves of culture’.) And, if intending to venture into the issue of which approach is best, compare for example 1-year RoI for the Norwegian ads with that of the US ads.
The delineation step was easy: I decided to restrict myself to a what I can best and in which I make a living: technology companies selling complex technical products in the global market place. I also restricted myself to companies that (appeared to) produce ads in-house or use an agency from the same country as they have their HQs. I finally restricted myself to product ads, not corporate ads (but the border is blurred), not product sheets (but some companies use just corporate ads + product sheets), and not non-ads formats (as they are difficult to document).
It was in the selection step my work plan broke down: I was clearly not in a position to examine the full universe of all Norwegian and all US ads, so I had to make a selection of typical US and typical Norwegian ads. Furthermore, I was not in the position to examine hundreds or thousands of ads, so I decided to select around 10 typical ads from each country. So, I ended up with around 10 typical Norwegian ads (from leading and highly innovative Norwegian firms like Ulstein and Kongsberg Oil and Gas) and 10 typical US ads (from leading and highly innovative US firms like Oracle and Accenture). Guess what: The Norwegian ads exhibited the same lack of data and facts as pointed out by my friend from Silicon Valley, let us call him Mac. Some were outright bad marketing. The US ads were brilliant, and leveraged the power of facts and quantitative information (see Oracle ad to the right).
I have a doctoral degree in engineering and know bad science when I see it, inside or outside my areas of expertise. This was such situation: I had selected my data to fit with my hypothesis (or prejudices; which is from a scientific perspective inexcusable) and were not in any way close to statistical significance (which is from a scientific perspective bad, but less of a sin, as one may always try to find additional data).
I could of course have stopped here, but I decided instead to attack the issue based on an alternative methodological approach, this time structured interviews with insightful people in my professional network. Said Stig Hammer, Managing Director of Markedspartner, a leading Norwegian inbound marketing firm (edited transcript): “[Americans] often tend to be more branding- and value-oriented, and less functional, than their Norwegian counterparts”, “[Norwegian companies] need to communicate more than simple product benefits,” and “confident, clear value propositions supported by compelling communication will be necessary [for Norwegian companies to succeed in the international market places].”
Which is probably true, after all, I have studied a fair number of Norwegian and US ads over the last 14 days. It is also probably true that Norwegian marketing appears to lack the will to leverage the power of facts and numbers in marketing (see for example the ad for the X-Bow concept to the right: good, but all arguments, no evidence). It is furthermore probably true that most Norwegians lack formal training in how to structure a piece of communication (there is one and only one way to do it, whether in science, politics, rhetoric, marketing, or management consulting). It is finally probably true that Norwegian ads tend to be verbose, and that aggressive pruning of text would make them more effective. But I cannot prove it, in a methodologically sound and rigorous way (and the difference between US marketing and Norwegian marketing is much less than that between good and bad marketing, and examples of bad marketing are abundant in both countries).
In real science it is observed that negative results are important, but are less and less frequently published (see for example blogs.biomedcentral.com/on-medicine/2012/10/10/no-result-is-worthless-the-value-of-negative-results-in-science/). This was such negative result, and I decided to publish the results of my dedicated and strenuous, but inconclusive quest for fundamental insights about Norwegian marketing over the last 14 days, in the form of this blog post.
Thanks to Mac and Stig for their insightful contributions. All opinions expressed in this blog post are those of my own, though.