Managing Cross-Cultural Teams by Matthias Blume

LS International

Same, same but different or the art & science of managing global and regional networks.

Same, same but different is how I am experiencing living & working across South East Asia: cuisines use the same herbs yet applied in different ways, Vietnam New Year Tet or Chinese New Year have lots of commonalities & shared values, but are not the exact same or while we all speak English and perfectly understand each other (for the very most part) each country has its own sub-form from Singlish in Singapore via Tinglish in Thailand to Taglish in the Philippines. Each country, each community, each family puts its own twist.

Having been lucky to live and work across 3 continents over the last 12 years in multi-national environments spanning from a global role to BU roles covering countries in the former Soviet Union, multiple countries across Western-Europe or now in South East Asia a recurring question is focused on how to manage differences between countries, cultures and languages.

Truth to be told: the world is getting smaller and more similar every day and certainly commonalities are by far larger than we sometimes want to believe as marketers in our home country. The days were all trends would originate in the United States, enter Europe via the UK and then continue their journey towards the East are over, trends can originate everywhere and travel any direction: Billy Eilish can conquer the East, BTS the West. The younger our target audience the more connected they are and tribes are forming globally around shared interests rather than physical borders – access to internet and data prices dropping are massively accelerating this trend.

That said, differences do exist and catering to these nuances will often make or break the ultimate success of a product launch, marketing campaign or internal engagement program.

While there is no blueprint, each project is different – in nature and via people involved, several actions have proven successful for me:

  1. Align at the start of the journey and keep teams informed throughout
  2. Start from commonalities and an aligned strategy (not the differences)
    Cater for difference through local amplification upon implementation
  3. Establish a clear role sort: who is responsible, who provides input
  4. Clarify deal breakers upfront that would prohibit adoption & implementation
  5. Manage expectations: what is in scope, what is out of scope. What gets delivered centrally vs locally?

As Albert Einstein said: If I had one hour to solve a problem, I would spent 55minutes on the problem and 5 minutes on developing the solution.

Aligning everyone takes time, effort and will from everyone involved – mindset is critical. As marketers we want to create, we want to write the future and next chapter of the brands we have inherited to take care of and handover to the next brand manager in a better state than received. Despite global brand architecture frameworks, we can get enormously creative believing we know better than the previous person or the person right or left to me, hence a single person speaking up too late or developing a passive aggressive Plan B has the potential to jeopardize success of any project.

Aligning early on, reconfirming against agreements constantly and operating from a strong basis of trust are ways to overcome these challenges or in one-word Overcommunicate.

With this comes the need to remove opportunities for excuses: my way or the highway will not deliver the end-result: we win or lose together. Choose your battles and trade wins not every argument is worth having – applying an 80/20 mindset usually yields the best results for me.

In a project some time ago we strongly debated carbonation levels of a new product innovation: as a brand guardian I had a clear preference for the higher level, yet my local team strongly believed that the lower levels were needed to make this launch a success. Quantitative consumer feedback was indifferent between the levels tested, rejecting the team’s hypothesis, yet I approved the lower levels against my strategic preference.
Why?  It was still in line with brand architecture and product truth and I needed my team to fully believe in the product formula and to confidently present it to the sales organization to make it an in-market success. Performance confirmed the decisions made.

With the lack of a blueprint and a one size fits all approach comes the need to understand and the opportunity to be ignorant.

Develop Understanding: In every new role I take, every new country I move to or visit I invest a significant amount of time upfront to listen, learn and understand: what is the business reality, what are problems the teams are facing, how do consumers view our brands, the categories, competition, what does an average day look like for consumers … – a business review in a board room is a good way to start but I really love consumer immersions, especially shop-a-longs and home visits. Ten times better than studio focus groups they allow me to get a sense for reality and immerse for a few hours into the real challenges of our consumers across different socio-economic levels.

Go on these immersions with the local team, seeing and hearing it together creates a sense of shared understanding, situations to reference back later.

Choose to be Ignorant: Ignorance due to a blatant lack of and interest in understanding local market dynamics will be a curse that will keep us from being successful, yet I know no matter how much time I invest into understanding I will rarely understand local consumers better than the local marketers. Cultural nuances that are difficult to impossible for us as guests to grasp will prevent this.

With this comes a blessing: Getting lost in detail is easy forcing to the focus on differences vs. same, same. Not understanding all details allows me to stay afloat, focus on the commonalities and create programs that can travel across countries, with the last 20% being perfected in each market.

And finally: Let go and trust. Nobody gets up in the morning to do a poor job.

No matter your experience, no matter your seniority nobody knows it all and controlling everything to the last centimeter of implementation will disempower, disengage and create frustration.

Invest time upfront, keep everyone informed and deliver against your commitments to earn trust every single day.

No matter how much I practice, how much I try cooking up an authentic Thai, Vietnamese or Russian dish it will be difficult, probably I can’t even cook an authentic German dish. What is authentic in the first place? Isn’t each family’s recipe different already? What I most certainly can do is to create a fusion between recipes using the same ingredients to create something new, something tasty, something people want to have more of, something that excites everyone.

At the end of day it is same, same but different.


Matthias Blume is a highly driven marketing executive with 20+ years of experience in local, regional and central roles with Coca-Cola & Danone. Team player and builder, culturally and geographically adaptable, with love for recruiting and developing talents to build world class teams.
Experienced in mature, emerging & developing markets with proven success leading high-profile brands and portfolios from vision and strategy through to execution and delivery.
His key skills include team development, cross functional collaboration and influence, brand and portfolio management, media agnostic communication development, touch-point strategy incl. shopper activation, product innovation & renovation and revenue growth management.