B2B marketing across regions with Alexandre Blumenthal, EMEA Marketing and Communications Lead at Lenovo ISG
In a globalised marketplace, a successful B2B tech company not only needs a good marketing strategy, but great diversity.
"Having had a lot of interviews and having worked with a lot of colleagues over the years, people tend to hire clones of themselves... You will see those teams who are very similar. I found it harder to succeed with them. I think the strengths don’t lie in similarities, but in differences."
On this episode of the FINITE Podcast, we are joined by Alexandre Blumenthal, EMEA Marketing and Communications Lead at Lenovo ISG. Alexandre has years of experience working in different large tech enterprises. He talked about what holds Lenovo back, in terms of working in a multi-regional environment, and how cultural differences move the company forward.
This episode covers:
- About Alexandre and his role at Lenovo
- The marketing structure at Lenovo
- The most challenging part of coordinating an international team
- How to overcome language challenges
- The difficulty of translating emotion
- The cultural differences in a multi-regional company
- The challenges of working with cultural differences
- The bottom-up approach for regional alignment
- The importance of diversity within a team
Listen to the full episode here:
And check out more of the FINITE B2B marketing podcast here!
Hello everyone, and welcome back to this episode of the FINITE Podcast, where today we have a great guest on the show. Alexandre Blumenthal who has over 20 years experience in tech and is currently EMEA marketing and communications lead at Lenovo.
Having worked at a large international enterprise leading global marketing teams, we thought it would be interesting to hear his perspective on multiregional B2B tech marketing, some of the challenges that may arise, cultural differences, language differences, achieving regional alignment.
This will be a fascinating one for anyone working globally or going global in 2022. I hope you enjoy.
The FINITE community is kindly supported by the marketing practice, a global integrated B2B marketing agency that brings together all the skills you need to design and run account-based marketing demand, generation channel, and customer marketing programs. Head to themarketingpractice.com to learn more.
Good morning, Alexandre, thank you for joining me on the FINITE podcast.
Thanks for having me. And it's a pleasure to work with another Alex here.
The best name. Thank you for giving up the time. I know we're going to be talking about a topic that we haven't really covered, but I think when we first spoke was quite an exciting one in terms of multiregional B2B marketing in some of the challenges that come with marketing around the world before we dive into that maybe your introduction will help to give some context as to why we're talking about that as a subject, but I'll let you tell us a little bit about yourself and introduce yourself.
About Alexandre and his role at Lenovo
Yeah, thanks a lot. So my name is Alexandre Blumenthal, and that perhaps gives it away a little bit early on already. I have a French first name and a German last name. And I'm always saying I'm a cocktail of half Belgium, half German and grew up in this environment.
And currently, I'm responsible at Lenovo for the ISG business. We love our abbreviations. So that's the infrastructure solutions group, which basically has everything to do with data centre and storage solutions around the data centre. And I look after marketing and communications for EMEA.
At this point, I would normally ask a little bit about your team's structure, but I think that's kind of integral to what we're talking about today in terms of your remit covering EMEA and how a team is built around that. So maybe you can start by telling us a little bit about your team structure at Lenovo and how you've built a team to do marketing and across the EMEA region.
The marketing structure at Lenovo
Yes. So, I mean, I always call these fortune 500 companies, supertankers and that's a little bit the way that we are built very structured.
First of all, we have corporate marketing that are sort of the brand guardians of Lenovo. And then as I told you, I'm part of ISG. We have different business groups within Lenovo, and these are mainly three big business groups that are working side by side, but all together we're necessary. So we have ISG, which I already explained, then we have another abbreviation that's called IDG. It's basically everything that has to do with products that are PC, but also mobile phones.
And then recently, so in April this year, we announced a third business group, which is SSG that's the services and solutions group, because more and more people want new ways of having products delivered with new additional services. So everything that, for example, has to do with everything as a service. So you don't buy anything anymore, but you just want to have it and pay a subscription as an example.
And so marketing teams are within each of those three business groups.
Exactly. So you have, like I said, the corporate marketing team, then you have the team within ISG and SSG. So everyone has basically a mirror image of themselves, but obviously with different sort of intentions, but at the end, we are all trying and that's where we need to work together, trying to focus on the customer.
And a lot of times the customer is similar, especially in B2B, there isn't a hundred clones of an IT decision-maker. It's normally in a smaller company, one person that makes the decisions in larger corporations. It's more obvious when we talk consumer business, it's different. Everyone is a decision-maker and makes their choice on what laptop or what phone to buy.
Yeah, absolutely. And when we talk about EMEA, is that for you at Lenovo? Is that true? EMEA is in everything in that region. Because I know sometimes the time is used and obviously the company might not be in every single country or market, but what does EMEA encompass for you?
Yes, I think I would challenge anyone who is in every EMEA market or every country that is because it's so many and so broad. So for us, obviously we have focused markets, but we cover all of Europe. We cover all of the middle east and we cover obviously all of Africa, but with different models.
So in the larger markets, we definitely have our own representatives as speaking for Lenovo. In smaller markets, especially in Africa, because it's such a vast and big continent. We are working through distributors.
And I think for anybody listening, it will come as no surprise that this kind of international structure can come with some challenges. And I think I'd love to dive into some of those now, from your perspective at a top-level, what would you say are the most challenging parts of coordinating everything you do across international teams and the region?
The most challenging part of coordinating an international team
The obvious one, because it's not only that I need to coordinate with, obviously my team in Europe, the middle east and Africa, but I also need to coordinate with teams in the Asia Pacific and North America.
So the biggest one is always times on, but I'm always envied by my colleagues around the globe that they say, Alex, you're based in the middle because I'm in Germany. So I have six to nine hours to the US and then Asia Pacific, I can even have early morning calls with Australia. So even this is possible.
But the second thing that I would say is cultural differences because although everyone thinks they are cosmopolitans, there are certain nuances that are different. And this comes with traditions like Halloween that when I was young, didn't really exist in Germany. And now it seems to be prevalent everywhere around the globe and then another obvious one. And we are having a discussion in English here is a language barrier.
Yeah, absolutely. The language piece is really interesting. Because I think particularly over the last couple of years, we've seen lots of B2B technology businesses, I guess, thinking about how they expand into new markets often very digitally and sometimes without even much of a footprint kind of on the ground.
I think with COVID, physical borders have gone up, but often digital ones have kind of come down and it's possible to do all kinds of marketing, communicating, remotely in different markets, but language still is obviously a big challenge from your perspective, is that the language of just working with people day to day internally, or is that the more tactical challenge of translating things and localising things at scale?
How to overcome language challenges
Alexandre (08:02): Yeah, it's actually, if you look at my budget, translation is one of the biggest ticket items, which is always hard to explain to anyone that is, let's say, in the US and that things that Europe is made out of German, French, and English, and, that even the Nordic languages, I mean, you have Danish, Swedish, Finnish and so forth. So it's definitely a big-ticket item.
We would love to translate into every single language that there is, because I think it is important that you address the customer. And I always think also in B2B, you have to have a message that is heartfelt, and you reach the customer with their native language the best. But obviously, we have some limitations here.
So English first and foremost is the language of choice. Everything is created England English, and then breaks down from English into local languages. And we obviously also use AI in terms of translation memory and et cetera, so that the translation agencies know our tone of voice and how we want to speak, but still, we need local validators. And a part of my team's job is really to check translations over and over again, which is quite cumbersome. But like I said, if you want to be successful, you need to bite this bullet.
Absolutely. It's a fascinating part of the marketing world and one that we don't talk about that often, because it's kind of behind the scenes, but you touched on translation agency. Do you have a partner that assists you with most of that kind of translation?
And I think the translation world's becoming more and more technology-enabled, as you mentioned, maybe some AI and there are ways of taking content out of a website into a translation platform and then automatically bringing it back in a different language. And I don't know how much of that you do or able to share, but any insights on the tactical side of how you actually do that, translation would be interesting.
Yeah, basically we have two kinds of translations as I work for a technology company and especially in the data centre space. The translation memory of high-performance computing and hybrid cloud environments isn't as good as if you talk about food and beverages. So when we talk about white papers and very technical stuff, it's basically manual translation because you need someone who understands the technology behind it. So that it makes sense when you talk about rate clusters and failover, but we tend to use for upper funnel activities.
A lot of, like I said, AI-based and we have a partner, but we had several partners. Because unfortunately we see over and over happening is that and I think it's with a lot of client-customer relationships, the way that you grow all together, like a couple, and then at some point, you see that, okay, maybe it's not the right partner to take the next step and you need to find a new partner, but there are only very few translation agencies available that have the scale to cope with Lenovo.
Interesting. And what about I guess I'm always interested in where you start with the translation side of things and particularly if you're obviously a white paper is as you say, more manual translation, but if you're starting with a campaign, is it always possible to start with the English and simply translate.
Because I feel like sometimes just the direct translation or obviously a good translation isn't always direct, but I'm trying to think what the question is I'm asking, but is some of the magic sometimes lost if you just start in English and you go into other languages and it just doesn't translate on an emotional level.
The difficulty of translating emotion
A hundred percent. I mean, you basically hit the nail on the head here. A lot in English sounds awesome. Cause it makes simply sense. It's brief. English is a very brief language and therefore you can use it in marketing very well. I'll give you an example of Lenovo the CMO that I work with David Roman came to Lenovo and said: Okay, we need to emotionalise the brand Lenovo a little bit more. And he said: Okay, what I mean, we are building PCs, we're building service and workstation, etc. What are they for?
And the essence was we do things with these machines. And so he came up with this brand claim for those who do. And if you translate for those who do into any other language, it sounds pretty stupid. I have to say so, but again, have to make the choice.
Do we leave it in English and keep it very brief? Or we use French and German are very complex languages. You make a whole sentence out of it. So the beauty gets lost in this wonderful sentence for those who do, who captures a great brand attitude. If you translate it.
So a lot of times we have to make compromises into, let's say some marketing or wording we leave in English because it just sounds better. And then we translate the rest of the text into the local language.
Interesting. So actually you will have some campaigns or ads that are basically in two languages in some markets in Europe.
A hundred percent. Yes. So at the moment, our brand claim is smarter technology for all. We made the decision to keep this simply in English for everything. So we adopt where possible, but we keep the original where necessary and where this translation simply would destroy the whole meaning of it. Alex (14:08): Yeah, absolutely.
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Let's talk about the cultural differences a bit more, I guess it's sometimes difficult to talk about cultural differences. I know there're all kinds of stereotypes, maybe that European countries have of one another and those kinds of things, which I'm sure come up in conversation, but what are the cultural differences that you really notice in terms of ways of working or when you see meetings and conversations with teams across Europe, but also wider than that, what are the kind of differences that make things difficult, but maybe even make things better in some ways?
The cultural differences in a multi-regional company
Yeah, I would say a lot of times it is knowing where you come from and some people are more well worse in terms of knowing that Europe isn't just a country. That's always something that I'm reconfronted with is Europe is a market. Yes, it is economically a market with the European Union, but not Europe, it isn't a single country. And some of the things that you notice is obviously I would say three things, mainly.
One is the character that a person has, and that has a lot to do with how the parents brought up the person. So that might vary from and has nothing to do with any nationality. Then age is an important factor. So whereas 20, 30 years ago, you hardly could find anyone speaking English in France. Nowadays the young generation really is very fluent in English.
And I think the third factor really is what inspires you. So a lot of times we see also things around certain music styles and other things that inspired people. And hence you see a piece of marketing with a certain music as an example where you say, okay, that doesn't work here because simply the background music or the jingle of the brand doesn't work where also a lot of the picture language is really different.
I mean, go on any big fortune 500 company website and look at their Asian websites. They will look totally different. I mean, even for Lenovo, we have anime figures running around on Lenovo in China and Japan, whereas the rest of the world looks pretty standard.
Yeah. Interesting. So do you have brand guidelines at a global level and then within each market as well?
Yes. So we have brand guidelines and I always say there's like one way or the other, the one way would be you go the apple way where you say, I don't care if there are any regional differences, my brand is consistent across the globe, even if it's painful for people, and this is very strong, but you need to be really policing this.
The other thing. And that's more how we work is we allow some regional differences. Simply because let's say, although we have cultures in Europe that are mixed. If I would have coloured people only in France, Germany or UK, or let's say Russia, that wouldn't go down so well, simply because again, people need to find themselves.
So you need to find already from the photography point of view, people who resonate with the local culture and obviously a mix can work. Or like I said, I also look after the middle east and Africa. If you have women that have a very little close on any kind of advertising again, that doesn't work. So you need to adapt to local differences is my point of view.
Yeah. Interesting. I guess that the cultural differences between these regions, do you feel like it just makes things more challenging, takes more time, takes more resources and more energy, but fundamentally things keep moving forward or is it restrictive in some ways? Are there barriers, are there frustrations? Are there things that hold you back?
The challenges of working with cultural differences
Well, obviously I would love to have an easy job, an easy life, and then you could say: Okay, we'll do the same one size fits all everywhere. Like I said, if you want long term success, you need to acknowledge the fact that there are differences and you need to really go down the path of saying, okay, we need to adopt where it makes sense. Obviously, it's also budget decision because you could go with a centralised team and your own people in every market. So I only hire, let's say North Americans, or I only hire Germans or only Spanish everywhere. Because you find a Spanish or a German or any kind of person everywhere around the globe and that would make my life easier.
But again, I think, like I said before, you have these character traits and profiles and you have your upbringing. And I think these nuances that breed success in a brand. And I think that's why we need to, for long term success, I would highly recommend to localise as much as necessary.
Yeah. And what about those kinds of wider region alignment? Because obviously you are working and thinking about alignment within the EMEA region all day, every day, I assume.
But then as you mentioned, there's APAC and the US, how do you go about achieving regional alignment to some extent or is it actually the cases we've just talked about that you've got some degree of standardisation globally, but then actually sounds like you have a relative to degree of freedom within local markets. You know, you're not Apple, as you said, in terms of how you communicate and your brand. But I guess the regional alignment piece is still key.
The bottom-up approach for regional alignment
Yes. So obviously we try to, because of efficiencies, adopt whatever we can. Actually, we just implemented a new model where our CMO for ISGs, Susan Blocher. And she basically said that you in the geos are much quicker and much faster in developing campaigns that work across multi-country even better than any worldwide team could be. And for us that mainly worldwide means North America.
So what we are currently implementing is that each geo picks a campaign and we are responsible in geo to develop this campaign and trends with the idea in mind that we can leverage this campaign across the globe. So the Asia Pacific colleague needs to think about EMEA. The North American colleague needs to think about the rest of the world, Latin America colleague and I need to think also about the Asia Pacific and North America when I build a campaign now.
Yeah, that's interesting. That's almost kind of like a bottom-up approach where you are. And I guess quite empowering for all of you as regional marketing teams.
Yeah. A hundred percent. So again, this comes out of a certain, I would say dissatisfaction if what we got delivered and this frustration was basically, we could use like the wireframe, but the rest we had to adopt and this adaptation took a long time. And that's why RC moment, the decision, okay. Let's, let's turn it around.
Like you said, let's make a bottom-up approach and think about, okay, if you can make it better, prove it. And we are now here to prove it. Hopefully.
I like that. What about we talked about language and the challenges obviously between different languages, but what about ways of working in language? Because I always think back to a conference I went to a few years ago where there was a lady who's a professor at Insead, I think, and I forget her name, but I'll try and link to it underneath. And she was talking about, she specialises in helping business executives, basically move to new regions, move to new countries, to work with top kind of C-suite execs, moving to Japan or moving to the US.
And she said that her biggest failures were always between English speaking countries. i.e someone going from the UK to the US or vice versa because there was so little thought about ways of working and language in its simpler sense was really easy to misconstrue or get confused in some way.
Whereas if someone went from London to Tokyo, they would buy the book. They would learn about how to say San at the end of someone's name and all the cultural things that they needed to do.
They were very conscious of and would put a lot of thought into and land gets off the plane, you know, almost ready and prepared. Whereas when you land in the US, you kind of think, well, everyone's speaking English. I don't really need to think about this, but she found that although both people were speaking English, there was so much room for people to kind of be almost using the same word, but meaning very different things. I don't whether you've experienced anything similar.
The key to success when it comes to language barriers
Yeah. I think there is this general notion where and again, one of the requirements here is if you have an EMEA job at Lenovo, you need to be fluent in English, but fluent in English doesn't mean that you understand each other.
So I think the success here really is within listening skills a lot of times, because we are so pressured on time and deliver results, et cetera, that people just want to get their message across, but they don't want to listen to any kind of feedback because, okay I now delivered you the information and that's it.
And I once had a training, leadership training, where the person said: okay, I'm gonna give you a description of something. So, concrete floor, a dog, and a hut for the dog and a fence around it. And then everyone had to draw this image and there were like 15 people in the room and all of the pictures looked totally different.
And I think that's an understanding of you have your own understanding of, especially from your upbringing of what kind of dog, what kind of house it is. And is it pink? Is it red? Is it black? White? What does a fence look like? And I think that's why listening and repeating or having the person repeat.
What you try to convey is really the key to success when it comes to language barriers. And even if you speak the same language as you refer to between the UK and the US have the person repeat in their own words, what they understood is the key for me.
Good advice. I want to wrap up by talking a bit about diversity. You touched on diversity within campaigns and ads across different parts of the regions you work and how key that is. But what about within a marketing organisation? Generally?
I think when we talk before you mentioned that diversity is important to you, maybe you can talk a bit about the importance of it and how you think about it within your team.
The importance of diversity within a team
Yeah. So first of all, out of the experience I have in having a lot of interviews and having worked with a lot of colleagues over the years is people tend to hire clones of themselves. And if you ever worked with your own disc profile or Myer-Briggs or whatever profiling tools you're using. You will see those teams who are very similar. I found it harder to succeed with them. I think the strengths don’t lie in similarities, but in differences.
And so it is super important not to talk diversities, obviously, a lot of times associated with, do you have the right percentage of women in your team, but I think it's much more, it's the diversity and inclusion. So are we inclusive also? So again, I want a team that is not saying Alex, you're the greatest person in the world and let's have a drink together and it's all fun.
No, you need these different profiles to succeed because only with different personalities that have had a different experience. So also inclusive people, having inclusive people in the team will give you the recipe of success. And, I think that is the strongest I've been working and leading or seeing succeed are the teams who are really made out of different genders, different upbringings but have a common goal and a leader that is inspiring them to do their best in their area of expertise.
So an introvert might not be the right person to put on stage, but he might be the best person to write you a PowerPoint presentation or a speech. So I think that that is really one of the things that are recipes to success is diversity in any kind of organisation, not only marketing, but especially marketing, because we need to be very sensitive towards different cultures and people because, in the beginning, I mentioned IT decision-makers, there isn't like this one person, or there is this one person, but he, she or ze might be very, very different.
Absolutely. We are pretty much out of time. So I'm going to wrap things up, but say, thank you very much for sharing everything that you have. I think there are lots of insights and lots of thinking for people that are, I'm sure scaling up and thinking about world domination and global expansion over the year to come. So thank you again for joining and thank you for sharing everything.
Thank you for having me, all the pleasure.
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