● Breaking into local markets requires striking the right tone on social media, knowing cultural ‘inside jokes’, and talking to local people about your product.
● Don’t underestimate the impact you can have because marketing has the power to spread positive social change.
● Diverse teams have different experiences, views, and strengths. By harnessing the widest possible perspective, you can achieve the greatest results.
From beauty to helping kids unlock their potential
Big companies with a global presence often lack one crucial element: the “local touch”. They don’t strike the right tone on social media because they don’t understand the subtle but profound differences between local cultures.
It seems that Ula Bieganska was born to do what she does today. She was always interested in ethnography and statistics. That love brought her to the modern world of data-driven marketing as Head of Marketing for LEGO’s Middle East and Africa operations.
Ula Bieganska began her career in the beauty sector at Procter and Gamble, later moving into a role focused on laundry products. In 2013, she moved to her dream job working at LEGO. Now she is based in Dubai as Head of Marketing for the Middle East and Africa office.
After starting her career in the beauty sector, she realized that her ultimate goal was to make a real impact on peoples’ lives. Now, she is helping children reach their unlimited creative potential with one LEGO brick at a time.
Following the power of data
I was raised in the countryside, and both my grandparents were farmers. That was where my enduring love of unique local cultures started. I’ve always had a love for math and numbers because they add some structure to the world. Therefore, I picked up Quantitative Methods in Economy as my major.
However, the meaning behind the numbers was always more important to me than the pure art of developing econometrics models. So, I enrolled in a different degree program, Cultural Anthropology, which allowed me to do ethnographic research and learn about the beauty of deep conversations with people from different cultures.
Despite this, I was always incredibly frustrated that academic institutions seemed suspicious of combining both approaches into one interdisciplinary field. My master thesis covered quantitative analysis of qualitative data. I was presented with the opportunity to continue that research within the Ph.D. program, but by then I knew that I would prefer learning by experience and not from behind university doors.
That’s when I moved to marketing. It requires not only analyzing what the data is telling you but also delving deeper into how cultural variations make people tick. I love it.
Reshaping ordinary peoples’ lives for the better
My marketing journey started at Procter and Gamble. That was a real eye-opener. There were people with all sorts of degrees, from philosophy to theoretical math. Despite their differences, they shared something vitally important: the right mindset.
Procter and Gamble was an important part of my life. I learned the ropes and grew into myself. It encouraged me to do some serious thinking and consider the answers to questions like, “What kind of a marketer do I want to be? What kind of person do I want to be?”
In those days I was working in the beauty sector. I didn’t feel I was positively changing peoples’ lives (beyond helping them look better). But when I got my first project in the Middle East and Africa, this changed everything.
The first time I traveled around this region I understood how much of a misconception there is in the West about this part of the world. This region is absolutely beautiful and more diverse than I could have ever imagined. And secondly, how much impact access to basic resources can have on those who live in areas faced with challenges.
For example, over 40% of Sub-Saharan Africa doesn’t have access to clean, piped water. This is a terrible statistic when you consider what this means in the everyday lives of people. Basically, in order to get water to your house, you need to bring it in a bucket from the source. In most cases, women and children are responsible for carrying that water back and forth, which means less time for other activities, for children namely – school and playtime.
Back then, at P&G we decided to introduce a product that would chemically remove the detergent suds from clothes during the wash process, so you would not need water to rinse them. Instead of 4 buckets of water per laundry, you would need just 1. As a result, kids don’t need to carry so much water over and over again.
The impact was extraordinary. I saw the amazing way it reshaped ordinary peoples’ lives for the better. It was then that I knew that I wanted to be in the business of changing people’s lives – and especially, kids’ lives – for the better.
LEGO Brand’s global presence with a local touch
Sometimes the puzzle pieces of life seem to just fall into the right place, as at that point I was approached by a recruiter about a position at the LEGO Group. The thing about the LEGO Group is that it’s a family-owned business and the founding family wants to leave a positive legacy in the world. The company’s philosophy is enchanting: every child should have the right to play. I couldn’t agree more.
LEGO Group is unique amongst big companies. While most stock-listed businesses are driven by quarterly performances, here we take the long-term view beyond the one-year assignment and the time any of us will work here. This leaves space for deep thinking and innovation. Companies need this if they genuinely want to make the world a better place to live in, rather than just focusing on the current year’s bottom line.
Since day one, everything about my new job has enchanted me. LEGO Group has a lean, flat corporate structure, especially when you compare it to other companies of a similar magnitude. It was founded in Denmark, which played a big role in shaping the company’s transparent, honest and caring culture – a culture that is so different from what we’d ordinarily see in today’s corporate world. It’s truly unique.
Fostering the next generation of creative talent
The truth is I am a bit of a geek and I love a big part of my job, as I am crazy about the LEGO brand and I love building all the sets. But what gives me the biggest kick is when I see the positive impact of what I’m doing.
The letters we get from kids and the feedback I get from parents are incredibly motivating. My work makes people smile and spend more time together. Nothing beats that feeling.
If you go on social media, you see on a daily basis so much content that people who love the LEGO brand are creating. Recently, I received a 3-hour-long documentary video about LEGO Ninjago made by a fan of the franchise. That would never happen with a laundry detergent.
Most importantly, the LEGO brand is all about encouraging children’s creative development. According to 2020 data by the World Economic Forum, 50% of all employees in the world will need reskilling by 2025, so within 5 years, 50% of the labor force has to adapt to the new reality.
That is the world of today, but what about the world our kids will live in? That is why the most in-demand skills are creativity, active learning, and problem-solving. Kids are developing all those skills through LEGO play.
3 ways to understand the local market
1. Diversify your team
You need to do this for the right reasons. It’s not about pretending you’re “woke”. It’s about ensuring you have the widest possible perspective. People from different backgrounds, genders, and cultures provide a grand tapestry of experience and unique insights. They challenge each other to think critically, get out of their comfort zone and innovate.
2. Know the local market
Talk with local parents about your products. Talk to the kids who play with the product itself. The LEGO brand is lucky because it has an active community. Local parents and children have diverse needs based on the cultural setup they function in. The key is to know the differentiation.
3. Speak the local language
Strike the right tone, and speak the right language (literally or figuratively) to be successful in a local market. Take social media. This could mean cracking “in-jokes” in South Africa that only South Africans understand, or celebrating Ramadan in the Middle East.
Marketing is all about connecting with people
People sometimes underestimate marketing. They see it at its most basic, that it’s about selling products. But at its best, it’s about changing the way someone thinks, acts, and feels for the better.
When used wisely, marketing can be a force for good in the world. It can change the world in myriad ways. Right now, some businesses have bigger budgets than many countries. It’s our responsibility to spread positive attitudes and drive positive change in the world.
This means thinking about the bigger picture. We recently created an ad that included children with disabilities. The responses were mixed and some people did not understand why we would do that. But it is about the power of representation.
By ensuring that all kids are visible, independent of their gender, ethnicity, or specific health condition, slowly, but surely, society will accept them for who they are. We believe in every child’s right to play, therefore our ads include kids of diverse backgrounds.
Most brand managers when making decisions around casting will want a certain “type” of the person featured in the ads. This is where you can make a difference. If you include, professionally and mindfully, more diversity in the casting, you can set off a ripple effect that eventually snowballs into a slow-burning societal change.
Taking a stand is a risk. You might get hit hard in return. Gillette got a terrible backlash from their ad about toxic masculinity. Taking a stand is the responsible thing to do, especially if you’re a big brand with a lot of exposure.
My favorite CEO, Jim Lafferty, used to say a principle is not a principle if it doesn’t cost you anything. You can claim you have principles and values, but only at the moment when you have to stand by those values at the cost of losing sales or support from some consumer groups will you know whether you really carry those values or not.
Change starts with the individual
In the marketing world, you may feel like a small cog in a great piece of machinery. Never underestimate the huge impact a single organism can have on a whole ecosystem.
To make an influence, you need to arm yourself with evidence. Expose people to the right data and they’ll be more willing to change. Give them the appropriate tools and they will start making the right decisions.
You can “coach” marketing until you’re red in the cheeks, but you need the right mindset and loads of practice. It’s an art. As any painter, songwriter, or novelist will tell you, a successful artist needs three things: the right mindset, a lot of discipline, and maybe a little bit of luck.Ula Bieganska, LEGO’s Head of Marketing in the Middle East and Africa