First off thank you for taking the time to get involved in this interview for our readers.
We only recently met as we both work in the same co-working space in Malaysia and discovered you spent a large part of your life living in London.
We recently sat down to discuss more about your company CommonRoot and how you work with big brands to help with their cultural communication. You kindly outlined your process and how effective this can be in identifying the cultural considerations and shifts when communicating brand messages.
I have recently developed my own greens brand and as to be expected I never went into the deep level of research you do with each of your clients. The cultural insights you highlight are fascinating and I can see the value of the service you offer to global brands.
So, I thought it would be of interest to readers here looking to understand what you do and why. Thanks again Joel – let’s jump straight into this with my first question.
1. Can you give us a little background information on you? For example, where you’re from and places you have lived.
First of all, thank you for inviting me to interview – and for your compliments on my work!
As you said, I spent a lot of my life in London, having grown up there. My dad is originally from Brussels, though, and my mum is from here in Penang, so we would travel to visit family in both places whenever we could. I grew up aware that London and the UK were only one part of my story, and only one part of the world, and so was always interested in trying to understand the rest of the story.
I ended up studying languages, literature, and culture, and ultimately I found myself moving to live, work or study in different places: from France and Germany to Singapore, China, and Brazil.
2. You have lived in several countries, what brings you back to Malaysia and why do you see yourself staying here for some time?
I had loved living in São Paulo in Brazil, but after a few years I started yearning for the feeling of having deep family roots in a place. Actually I’d never really had this in the UK either, despite having grown up there, so I turned towards Malaysia and above all Penang, where I have almost the opposite problem – too much family!
I started making connections of my own here, and soon enough I started focusing on Malaysia and the region in my consultancy work.
I feel that Southeast Asia and, to be honest, Asia, in general, is often misunderstood and misrepresented in the West, and I would like to do what little I can to change this, especially at a time when the political gaps between different cultures seem to be widening around the world.
I think that Malaysia at its best provides a model for how different cultures can build something solid together and that this is more valuable than ever right now.
3. Your company CommonRoot works with brands looking to communicate effectively their message in different markets. This is a very niche market you work in; how did you get into this?
It’s a cliché to say, but I do think much of my life has brought me here.
With my mixed background, I was always trying to understand how to communicate between different cultural viewpoints: whether it be simply between my parents, or between whole nations in international politics. This type of communication shapes our world.
Language is one aspect of it, but also visual and non-verbal communication, and the different perspectives and worldviews that these all contain. Brand communication is a huge part of this as well – we’re surrounded by messages every day from brands trying to get our attention.
So my multicultural background and my language studies were the foundation, and then after my master’s degree, I went into market research, doing interviews and focus groups. I actually hadn’t known that my field of cultural research and cultural insight was an option in the industry, as it is very niche as you say, but I was approached by one of the few specialists in the field at the time and it made perfect sense to me as soon as I got into it.
4. To the layperson how would you describe what you do, part of your process and why it’s crucial for brands looking to break into new markets?
As I said, we are surrounded by brands almost everywhere we go these days, and they’re all trying to get our attention. But what too many brands forget is that we are surrounded by other things as well: politics, religion, history, family and social norms, science and technology, art and design, movies, music, and pop culture…
Everything we see and hear around us affects the way we listen to what brands are saying to us, and brands need to respond and adapt to this constantly changing cultural environment if they want us to react to them positively.
For example, if I’m a manufacturer of plastic straws in the 1970s, or if I’m the same manufacturer of plastic straws in 2019, then I will discover that my cultural environment makes a difference to my sales even if my product and messaging remains the same.
So my process is basically looking at the ways that different cultural environments communicate around issues that are relevant to a particular brand, seeing how these are changing, and recommending how brands can keep their own communication in line with this. This is obviously relevant if you’re a big global brand trying to sell something in different markets around the world, each with its own cultural environment, but it’s just as relevant if you’re only dealing with a single market too.
5. What is the biggest mistake you see brands making when developing their products and services?
Apart from not coming to me first…?
Well, I think it would be not putting themselves in the real-life shoes of their consumers. There are too many brands who get caught up in their own hype, or their own cultural assumptions, or their own ‘disruptive innovations’, ‘new normals’, or ‘digital futures’, and forget about what people actually need and use in everyday life.
There’s so much talk about the need to disrupt, or to ‘innovate or die’, or ‘move fast and break things’, but I saw a study by Nielsen last year that said about 80–85% of new FMCG product innovations fail within a few years.
That’s a lot of wasted budget on this total faith in innovation.
At the same time, people are still buying books, candles, bar soap, postage stamps, or vinyl records, and there are solid cultural reasons for all of these purchases.
6. I can see that any company looking to identify market opportunities or even to break into new ones could use your services. What size companies do you work with?
I work with all sizes of brands from all kinds of different industries, and the variety is one of the things I really enjoy about my work. I work with multinationals such as Unilever and Diageo, but also with smaller brands, from private jet makers to glass manufacturers.
I make an effort to work for charities and NGOs too, from the International Committee of the Red Cross to Transparency International.
7. I know you have worked with some big well-known brands. What have been your biggest successes with brands you have worked with?
A lot of my work takes place behind the scenes in the research and strategy phase, so I can’t always point to a visible result. When I do have the chance to work with designers and directly help shape the finished product, it’s doubly rewarding.
One of the logos I see most often that I was involved in a while back is the Chivas Regal logo. There were different design options on the table for this new icon and I helped understand how each of them worked across the different cultural environments of key markets, from the US to China and Brazil.
I also worked with Facebook a few years ago to understand holidays and occasions like Mid-Autumn Festival, Ramadan, or International Women’s Day across Southeast Asia. From there they created greetings that appeared on millions of people’s feeds.
8. We briefly discussed how you see your company growing in the next few years. What is your vision for CommonRoot and how you see your role changed as you scale your company?
At the moment the consultancy is centered on me, working with a network of local partners and specialists in other disciplines.
It’s independent and flexible, but in the future, I would like to grow it into more of a self-sustaining business and am always looking to meet other culturally minded people interested in this approach to brands.
I love the actual work, but if the consultancy does grow then I’d be very happy to take on a role where I can advocate for this cultural approach more concertedly.
9. We briefly mentioned the market I am in with my Super Greens supplement. Would you be up for producing a mini report on this?
I think functional foods are a really interesting and emergent area at the moment and one which is trying to work out how to position and communicate itself. Some brands seem to be communicating around delivering all the benefits of fresh and wholesome natural eating; others talk about enhancing your life in a high-tech way, or others use the language of performance and bodybuilding.
So it would be interesting to try and understand which approach has the most relevance to Super Greens and help you grow!