Global campaigns should target cities, not countries

Reynaldo Brigantty, Pexels

Going global is daunting, even for billion-dollar companies. It’s hard enough to introduce a brand in your native country; doing it elsewhere ups the ante. Despite numerous strategies and efforts, even top brands such as Target and Best Buy have struggled to expand into foreign markets.

Whether your business will be global or domestic was always presented as a binary choice. Now there’s a third option: multi-city. Just as brands use influencers as a shortcut to the mass market, they can use cities as a focused and effective way to go global.

Thanks to digital communication, cities have an outsized influence on global culture. Witness the recent phenomenon of “Anglocreep,” the encroachment of British colloquialisms into the American vernacular. As The New York Times noted, this trend is particularly pronounced among barmy New Yorkers who sit in their “brilliant flats” thinking of themselves as players on a global stage.

London has the same outsized effect on Europe, but it isn’t the only influential city. I just got back from Shanghai, but based on the fashion and retail trends, at times it felt like I could have been in Tokyo.

Cities are the epicenter of culture

About 55%of the global population currently lives in cities, and that’s expected to rise to 68% by 2050. Cities are what writer Richard Florida calls “cauldrons of creativity.” Rome, Athens, London, Paris, Berlin, New York, and Los Angeles have all been backdrops for new artistic movements and ideas at various moments in time. And there is cross-pollination between those cities. Fashion trends that hit in Paris often take off later in Los Angeles, and vice versa, for example. After all, trendsetters start trends, and trendsetters usually live in cities.

Most people choose urban areas because that’s where much of the work of the creative class takes place. Cities offer the “three T’s” — technology, talent, and tolerance — that attract creative people. Technology is where the jobs are, which attracts talent, and tolerance allows creatives to let their freak flag fly.

All of this reinforces the idea that the 21st century is the era of big cities. Urban areas have never been so populous. China has at least 15 citiesthat are bigger than New York City. Mexico City, São Paulo, and Tokyo all have larger populations than European and North American cities. The economic influence of modern cities is staggering: New York City’s GDPis slightly larger than all of Canada’s, and Los Angeles’s GDP is about equal toMexico’s.

Finally, there’s cultural influence. Digital channels let cities influence the world in unprecedented fashion. Brands that can make it in London or New York really can make it anywhere. You don't need to live near a Nespresso store or a La Colombe to have those brands in your home.

The role urban centers play in fomenting creativity is one reason why it’s smart to target ad campaigns to specific cities. Rather than taking a broad-brush approach, creatives can craft campaigns that speak to a more focused target audience, say, influencers for example, who are generally more open to receiving and spreading new ideas and, ultimately, enable sharper and better communications. This can lead to more first-class work.

What brands can learn

Why not take the idea further? Imagine if a company such as Brooklyn-based, direct-to-consumer footwear brand Greats focused on becoming cool in London and Tokyo instead of trying to win over, say, all of Europe. The influence of those two cities would influence trendsetters all over the world. They would likely be more drawn to the brand than they would if it had done a traditional “global” campaign and may further amplify their exposure and brand affinity in their home market of New York.

Such an effort would capitalize on the lack of infrastructure needed for digital distribution. Brands can use advertising to create that demand and fulfill it without having to win over retailers.

In another example, Target a few years ago tried to enter the Canadian market only to pull out after two years. But imagine if instead of going after the entire country, Target had merely focused on a couple of Canadian cities instead? Target could have built its business in Toronto and used the influence of that city to create demand elsewhere. If Target had followed that playbook it might still be there.

A city-based approach focuses on what the marketer is trying to achieve without getting caught up in the logistics of targeting entire countries. That leads to better work and greater relevance with the target audience. And that is why marketers should forget about going multi-national and go multi-city instead.

Guy Hayward is global chief executive officer of Forsman& Bodenfors

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