On communications: What's in a name?

Geography matters - and understanding the roles that region and place play is critical for business success.

by Tom Kowaleski, World Business

How many times have you been asked where you are from? If you happen to be from one of the world's capital cities, or one that's recognisably on the trend line, you merely have to say "London" to receive immediate acknowledgement that you 'get it' or, more importantly, help to make 'it' happen.

But what if the answer is Birmingham or Nantes or Des Moines? I bet there's some immediate explanation: "It's really a great place to raise a family" or "You should visit some time to see how wonderful life is there". This geographic imprinting can have a similar impact on a company. Understanding and managing it can be a critical element in the multitude of factors that help shape your company's image and contribute to its reputation.

A few years back I had lunch with the chairman of a major global company in his office in one of the capital cities of Europe. He was the head of an impressive enterprise, one he described as critically dependent on getting to market first with the hottest, trendiest new products. He felt the benefits of being in the middle of such a trendsetting city every day.

He also had a major competitor, which had its headquarters in a large mid-western US town. I asked him if he was concerned about it, and he replied that yes, it was a good competitor, but at the same time how could a company from such a place be on the same leading edge in a business sector that thrived on style and creating trends. Supreme confidence? Sure, but more importantly, it was rooted in his belief that geography matters.

"Region and country, geographic location and national heritage are key competitive and comparative elements," says Kasper Nielsen, managing partner of the Reputation Institute in New York. "These elements really need to be understood by a company when it moves around the world."

For example, Nielsen points out that large US companies immediately have "high visible reputation capital" from their national heritage when they establish themselves in global markets. "In some cultures it helps them and in others it hurts them," he says. Knowing which side of the fence one's cultural reputation is on is a critical element in building a positive local image. Sometimes, this is hard both to see and accept.

"National heritage usually works more positively in the home country than it does abroad," says Nielsen. However, he finds that some companies habitually rely on their home market reputation in a new region when they might consider doing just the opposite to get off to a good start. This is particularly true in the case of large, successful enterprises in high impact business sectors. "Now, more are finding it doesn't work and wondering what the local reputation landscape is, and asking what they need to do to develop their image within it."

According to Nielsen, to add to their impact and scope, some successful European pharmaceutical companies have moved into the US market by undertaking joint ventures with large American companies. He cites Toyota as another company that discerns what it needs to keep from its well-known Japanese reputation and what it needs to add in the local market. Like so many factors that make up the complex mix of a company's image, understanding the role of geography is good business.

Let's go back to the earlier example of explaining why nice, bucolic 'anytown' is a great place to live. This is not just an external factor, but a critical internal one as well. Take recruiting: to attract talent, geography plays an important role. So that company from the nice, stable part of the country plays this card to the full. It builds an employee base of people who cherish the great place to raise kids with stable values. This, in turn, comes to reflect the culture of the company. If the company produces products or services known and sold on these values, it's a great fit.

But what if the company is in a fast-moving, trend-oriented business such as fashion, entertainment, automobiles or creative services? Or worse, if its toughest competitors are from regions that celebrate these products and services, and help create their image? This sets up a huge challenge because "you often need a burning platform to create and sustain change", says Nielsen.

If you reside in 'quiet' and your product is 'hot', be brutally honest. That look you get when you say "Birmingham" means there's a message to hear. What's behind the immediate impression? Is it inconsistent with the image of your product, or, more importantly, the image you want to have? If you can jump between desired state and current perception, and implement actions that make a virtue out of both, then you might find you can play in both with equal comfort.

- Tom Kowaleski is head of communications consultancy actk2. He was vice-president of global communications at General Motors before retiring in March 2006.

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