Observations by Claire Irving
Two nations divided by a common language. This well-worn phrase was repeatedly cited to me before we moved from the UK to New York and a lot after we landed. With this phrase ringing in my ears, friends at home would reassure me the shared language would make it easier for us to settle in the US. It seems Brits feel familiar with US culture thanks to the plethora of exported TV shows and movies that influence our small green island. However what’s depicted on the big or small screen or through the behavior of American celebrities does not quite capture the nuances that differentiate British and American consumers. Often, differences between the two countries are trivialized and boiled down to accent, the odd word or communication styles; compare the stereotypical deference of the Brits with the boldness of Americans.
Until I moved here, I hadn’t fully appreciated just how different the two countries are when it comes to cultural context and related consumer behavior. Like many Brits I’d visited the States a few times before we decamped here, but getting a cultural impression whilst on a brief business trip or holiday is very different to living somewhere new that requires one to adapt in order to communicate more effectively and form enduring relationships
As a naïve new American consumer there seemed three main hurdles to overcome. Firstly, I had to learn a new consumer vocabulary – I remember asking a bemused looking shop assistant in Target where the Wellie Boots were. She stared back at me blankly until I described them as plastic boots you wear in the rain – doh! When the school asked me to pack a Brown Bag lunch for the kids, I assumed it was a product not another word for a lunch you make yourself, and as a result I spent a good amount of wasted time scanning A&P Fresh Market for a non existent brand. Secondly, I had to adopt new shopping behaviors - visiting separate stores to buy wine and beer (in New York State), using debit cards as credit cards, ignoring the layers of US point of sale pricing in supermarkets, and realizing it was pretty normal to drive 20 miles to a supermarket because the product was better or the market was significantly cheaper. (I reckon 2 miles is about the average drive for a UK consumer to their preferred supermarket).
Thirdly, the most challenging adaptation was internalizing different consumer etiquette. In the UK shop assistants have a reputation for being defensive and tend to view customers as an obstacle to the enjoyment of their day. In turn customers tend to internalize their frustration and resort to passive aggressive techniques such as swearing under their breath if the queue (line) gets too long or sighing irritably – but loudly – so everyone around you can sense your frustration. Being a US consumer involves adopting a more open and tolerant mindset. It’s ok to speak to strangers in the supermarket without people thinking you are a total freak. When the person in front of you is rummaging through their bag looking for the last elusive and crumpled coupon you can offer help to get them out of your way faster. Feeling under control by expediting the line is an empowering experience especially when the boys are grabbing various forms of Superhero style candy as if it’s free. As much as I love the American’s value of candor it can also mean being subject to some pretty strong opinions and, whilst all are interesting, not all are welcomed!
Being an American consumer involves interaction – as a consumer it’s not an option to walk anonymously through a mall and ignore the customer service person’s offer of help (an action that would irritate or embarrass the hell out most UK consumers). At first I found this behavior pretty intense and felt uncomfortable with it; however now I’ve come to leverage it for my benefit – to make shopping easier and less effort. Whilst at The Westchester, a large upscale mall outside NYC, an employee cheerfully asked if she could get a fitting room started; she proactively fetched different sizes, suggested alternative styles and accessories and helped me get dressed. Although there is no such thing as free help, this attitude would be shunned by most UK consumers and a softer sales approach would be preferred, or such assistance would be limited to more high end shops. I can see how the spirit of America and cultural values including ambition, generosity and positivity strongly influence consumer dynamics and lead to dramatic differences in customer expectations and experiences.
The other element that intrigued me was the extent to which consumer practices are influenced by seasonality, at least in the North East. There is a marked difference in what people wear (not just driven by practicality), how homes are accessorized, the activities families participate in, whom people socialize with and what they eat and drink. These behaviors are much more designated by season than in UK where the seasons are a version of breezy, sunny and wet and as a result consumer behavior does not vary all that much
For companies establishing new brands in any foreign culture it’s crucial to understand the social values, intricacies, quirks and consumer psychology as context for their category. It’s about understanding what you can and can’t change. The brand has to walk a line between being a natural choice and feeling uncontrived, and adopt a positioning informed by a deep understanding of the cultural context and opportunity. Simultaneously, it must be true to its heritage in order to be considered genuine and therefore be convincing. This was brought home to me this past Spring.
My son participated in a soccer (football) program organized by an English company, which had been resident in the States for some years. Their employees greeted each kid with a high five and called the boys buddy (mate would have been the familiar greeting in the UK). Whilst this was a nice gesture it smacked of cultural training and was all so amusingly incongruous when you heard the posh English gal from Surrey trying to get down with the American kids. My advice to a brand setting up somewhere new is to keep it real – leverage the genuine soul of your brand’s personality and blend this with relevant cultural insights, to create a recipe that will make for more perfect congruence.