It’s all happening in Portugal

Last week I was in Porto, Portugal, where I found a rare level of energy and enthusiasm for business. And why not? Portugal and Portuguese businesses in some respects have it all to play for. They are a small country, with small businesses only 7% of which actually export and they are up for it – big time – which is just as well because they simply can’t continue as they are! It’s time for Portugal to start playing smart!

A big slice of Portugal’s current exports are to the UK, so it’s no surprise that a hot topic of conversation while I was there was Brexit. There’s a whole piece I could write here on the potential demise of post-Brexit UK, driven by a profound cultural insularity that has brought us to this “shoot-yourself-in-the-foot moment.

If we are to recognise the implications of Brexit we could only translate it to mean Brit’s don’t care about anyone but themselves and, given that the future for the world is undoubtedly cooperation and mutual support, that augurs badly for our nation. However, how Britain has failed to play smart is another article. What Brexit means today for nations like Portugal is that they have to redouble their efforts to develop overseas markets.

Crisis, what crisis?

One of the questions I received from the floor at the Portuguese Chamber of Commerce Annual Conference referred to “… the current crisis”. My response was that crisis is what we often make of a challenge. To avoid creating one we should focus on the situation facing us, not the consequences of failure and play smart.

In one respect, I’m not too concerned for the Portuguese. However, if you combine these Portuguese post-Brexit concerns with their enthusiasm you could end up with a loose cannon. I can also see that this combination could raise the danger of – as we say in the part of the world I hail from – “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”.

Nevertheless, with the really excellent support provided by Associacao Empresarial de Portugal (AEP) their Chamber of Commerce, I think they have the raw ingredients for success, at home and abroad. It’s really just a matter of how they leverage their understanding and resources – playing smart!

Start playing smart by understanding your market

It sounds obvious, but so many businesses I encounter are in trouble, or heading for it, because they don’t really understand their market and there’s no excuse for lack of clarity in this respect these days.

There’s no doubt, any Portuguese businesses with its sights on the broader global marketplace, faces a few challenges, but if you are such a business, while I don’t want to throw water on your flames, my advice is, take a moment to understand the markets and options open to you and where you might fit in. Remember the hare and the tortoise?

There are advantages to being small and Portugal, its businesses and their current impact on world markets are certainly that, but, as everyone in Porto was quick to point out “small” also describes their budgets. My response to this is, if you can’t think big, playing smart is all the more important.

To start with let’s tune into the new global consumer and why digital businesses are popular with them.

Products are not your reason for being

I have to keep reminding my clients that products are transient. They are not your purpose, they are only a means of achieving it. Customer demands change constantly, often driven by new technology that introduces an ever-widening range of options. The products we buy have always been a compromise. Rarely have they been “perfect” solutions. They have only ever been the closest we can get given the resources at our disposal. 

I’m always telling audiences, it’s not that digital has changed things. In fact change is nothing new, the issue is the extent of the change digital technology creates. Digital technology – among other things – gives us the ability to both understand and respond to customer needs faster and more precisely than a traditional business ever could. That’s why customer experience (CX) ratings of a digital business are almost always higher than those of their traditional competitors and we all now know – I hope – that CX is everything in the digital economy. There’s no doubt, when the battle commences between a technical and digital business the digital business is ALWAYS going to win.

Today, thanks to digital, we can do anything. It’s worth noting that when businesses transform (and I re-emphasise my past insistence of the distinction between “change” and ”transformation”) the outcome is usually a different range of products and, sometimes, even means operating in an entirely different sector.

Size isn’t everything. Playing smart counts.

Portuguese businesses are often small and old-fashioned. Hardly a recipe for global conquest. They recognise this of course and have, in the past, been content with the share they could each muster of their domestic market with a few exports as a bonus. However, the ease with which foreign businesses have made in-roads into the Portuguese market lately make it harder for local businesses to ignore the inevitable. 

Technology works both ways. It might make it easier for Portuguese businesses to open international markets, but it also means foreign concerns can enter the Portuguese market even more easily. In fact, international success is no longer a question of size. John Chambers (CEO and Chairman Cisco 1995-2015) told us we are in the era of global businesses with two employees. Size does matter to some extent of course, but it’s more a matter of how digitally savvy you are.

Today we operate in the “more for less economy” and that means, among other things, achieving greater success with fewer resources. So while Portuguese businesses may not be an industrial or commercial  “Goliath” there’s nothing to stop them becoming “David” and digital technology will be their key asset.

The difference is the difference

It would be a mistake for Portuguese businesses to believe their road to success depends on mimicking the products of their foreign competitors. Very few battles were ever won with a head-on attack and facing off with well established businesses and brands can only end one way.

The rules are the same for every organisation, whatever their origin. Differentiation is the key and the exclusivity of products and services from a small market like Portugal with a strong culture, must surely offer opportunities in this regard.  

This responds directly to the end-user demand for individualism. The task therefore becomes one of digging deep to uncover the unique differences inherent in your brand and working out how to manifest these in products and propositions with a unique twist.

Using tech and playing smart

My Brand Discovery programme contains such a process, but it’s still only a part of the solution. The rest relies heavily on tech. In fact we use tech tools initially to gather information on markets, potential customers and competitors and, once my clients define their brand we employ technology to identify and reach out to individual prospects with increasingly tailored communications using automated campaigns that culminate in qualified leads. 

Playing smart with diverse tools

This tactical activity is conducted against a background of strategic initiatives that leverage social and content marketing and digital communications channels to build the authority that’s essential to ultimate success. 

It’s always been true that successful campaigns combine tactical and strategic elements and in the unforgiving more–for-less economy you can’t afford to overlook this. What’s more, recent in-depth analysis of Effie Awards case studies from the past twenty years confirms this. It also proves beyond doubt that successful communications strategies combine digital and traditional tools and channels. So, don’t be lured into believing today’s marketing communications are all digital. 

While the inspiration for this article were the businesses I met in Portugal last week the basic rules apply wherever in the world you may be.  If you are a large nation like the US you may be able to afford – arguably for a relatively short period – to bully your way to success, but if you are in it for the long term you need to be playing smart and “smart” isn’t exclusive to big countries.

Phil Darby
December 3, 2019

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