International Virtual Teams – Today’s Way of Working Together
Working in multicultural teams where the members reside far from each other is reality in the contemporary business world. All sorts of virtual tools have been developed to facilitate this work. But the tools are useless unless people possess adequate skills for working in teams with others coming from different cultures, both by their country of origin and their business.
The International Branding Project was developed to offer TAMK business students opportunity to learn how to work in an international network. The project is embedded in the marketing courses of TAMK International Business and Business Administration -degree programs and is executed in co-operation with Stenden and Windesheim Universities of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands and Brno University of Technology in the Czech Republic. So far the project has been executed three times.
Answering to Lidl Trend Challenge
Branding project concentrates on researching and developing retail brands within a chosen business area. In the spring 2015 grocery, or more precisely fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) retail business, was chosen as target because of the turbulence it has encountered within the past couple of years.
FMCG retailing, which has been a growing business for decades, has faced difficulties and the growth has turned into slight decrease (Finnish Grocery Trade association 2015). One of the reasons is the fierce price competition, where Lidl is one of the key players, steadily growing its market share.
The International Branding Project was developed to offer TAMK business students opportunity to learn how to work in an international network.
Everybody is happy about low prices, but not all consumers choose their shopping place merely by price. Yet, most of the traditional Finnish food retailers seem to emphasize in their communication that they, too, are cheap or even cheaper. The most visible response has been S-group’s campaign of ‘lowering’ prices of several hundreds of products and other retail brands have followed. Those customers valuing service, high quality, domestic products etc. soon don’t know which retailer to turn to, as every brand uses the ‘cheap card’.
Theoretical Framework and the Aim of the Project
As a theoretical framework the students applied the brand model of Ko Floor (2006). A strong brand helps to create competitive advantage compared to other players. Strong brand should be an entity, both cognitive and emotional, which the customer can relate to and bond according to her own motives and lifestyle. Strong brands pay more attention to customers’ emotions, they e.g. build on stories and distinctive personalities (Floor 2006, 28). Floor’s brand model consists of three components: positioning, personality and communication which should all be in line with each other (figure 1).
Additionally the theory of personality archetypes, originally borrowed from the myths and heroic stories of human kind and later developed by Carl Jung was applied. Archetypes describe brand personality with 12 different types such as hero, lover or jester (Mark & Pearson 2001).
The aim of the project was to develop a brand plan for a retailer like K-Citymarket in Finland or Albert Hejn XL in the Netherlands. In order to be able to develop the brand the students first conducted a research and analyzed the current situation: the retail business and the image of the brands. The main question the students were expected to answer was: What should an attractive store brand be like in order to compete successfully against the ’Lidl trend’ and how to create such a brand?
Working in Multicultural Virtual Teams
Nearly 60 students altogether were organized into small teams of 3 to 5 members in each university. Every team was assigned a co-team from another university and they were working closely together using virtual tools like Skype, GoogleDocs etc. after a kick-off meeting in Brno, Czech Republic.
The students first agreed on a common research plan and -instruments. Data were collected by students’ observation in the stores, analyzing the marketing communications of the brands and also by conducting a small survey among the consumers. Each team researched one retail brand of their choice in their home country by observing the stores, interviewing consumers and analyzing advertising.
The results were reported by country and the brands. In addition a comparison of markets in the three countries was made. The theoretical framework described earlier was used to describe the retail brands. The students presented their findings to each other in a video conference.
This synthesis of research findings gave the students a wider perspective to the FMCG-business than by studying their domestic business only. A brand development plan was then created to one retailer within each team, again comparing the suggested brand strategy and actions to another brand in another country, for instance if the brand strategy for K-Citymarket would apply to Albert Hejn hypermarket in the Netherlands.
Market Shares in Three Countries
The key findings of the students’ research are described here.
The Netherlands and Finland seem to have pretty similar food retail market structure; there are clear market leaders like Albert Heijn and S-market. In the Czech Republic the market shares are more equal, there are several same size retail chains. Finland has less chains, only four: two dominant ones and two somewhat smaller chains, see figures 2-4. Lidl is present in each of the three countries. It has nearly the same market share in each of them, around 9%. Coop, Spar and Albert Heijn/Ahold all have super market chains in the Netherlands and in the Czech Republic. In Finland there are only local supermarket chains, excluding Lidl.
Floor’s Brand Model in Practice
In Ko Floor’s (2006) branding model strong brand identity has three connecting instruments which are a clear, differentiating positioning; a distinct brand personality; and consistent brand communication. The key factors to consider when positioning a brand are range, price, convenience and customer experience.
According to the international comparison between Finland and the Netherlands each retail store seemed to have a different positioning attribute. As a part of the project students made also a field research in Brno, Czech Republic, during the kick- off week. They noticed in the Czech Republic that the dominant positioning attribute seemed to be price for most retailers. Range was important as a supporting attribute. So, in the Czech Republic there is space for more differentiated positioning.
The 12 archetypes were chosen to describe personality of a store (Mark & Pearson 2001).
In Czech Republic and in Finland most common store personality appeared to be ‘Everyman’. Everyman archetype is described with attributes such as down-to-earth, everyday functionality, sense of belonging, friendship and care. According to international comparison the majority of Finnish retailers focus on creating a familiar and steady feel around the company. In Holland the archetypes of the stores differed from each other more. The most popular archetype was Innocent combined with the attribute ‘Reliable’, which means according to international comparison that the Dutch value trustworthy and innocent companies more.
Communication of the stores in three different countries are not described in this article.
The student also made a price basket comparison. The basked consisted of 11 basic food items such as milk, bread and cheese. The total price of shopping baskets varied by country even from €10,96 to €24,10. The most expensive country to shop your groceries is Finland, but even in Finland the prices are very diverse. According to the comparison the cheapest supermarket is Prisma (€15.43) and the most expensive one is Siwa (€24.10). The prices in the Netherlands varied, too, but not as much as in Finland. According to the comparison Aldi is the cheapest one (€10.96) and Albert Heijn is the most expensive (€15.72). The same goes with the Czech Republic where the cheapest basked was offered by Lidl with €13,96 and the most expensive by Globus with € 18,85.
Experiences and further development
The project was executed without any contribution from the retail businesses. The retail brands acted as virtual customers to the student teams. On one hand this gave the project free hands to set the goals without limitations or extra requirements. On the other hand the students may not have taken the project quite as seriously as if it was done for a ‘real customer’, who could also give them inside information.
In their feedback the students reported that the project was very demanding but also very rewarding. At first they found it difficult to contact people they did not know in advance, but eventually understood the value of working in international teams and overcoming the difficulties caused by cultural differences. To perform in a video conference was also a challenge to some. The students learned about dealing with technical problems, organizing their communication and file system, and many other international project skills.
New project was launched on February 2016 and this time there is also real client involved. After this spring it is to be known which direction the project proceeds. What will be the experiences to work with customer? Is it possible to study in one project two industries – grocery and hardware industry? How to develop the management of the international project? How to develop the virtual tools used in the project?
Finnish Grocery Trade association 2015. Finnish Grocery Trade Annual Publications. Retrieved 7.11.2015. http://www.pty.fi/front-page/publications-statistics/
Floor, K. 2006. Branding a Store. Amsterdam: BIS Publishers.
International comparison 2015. Holland, Finland and Czech Republic. International Branding Project. Project team in University of applied sciences Stenden. Unpublished.
Mark, M. & Pearson, C. S. 2001. The Hero and the Outlaw; Building Extraordinary Brands through the Power of Archetypes. McGraw-Hill.
About the authors
Ms Tuula Andersson has Master’s Degree in Business Administration. She has over 20 years of working life experience in the field of Marketing Research. Ms Andersson is a senior lecturer in the Degree Programme in International Business at Tampere University of Applied Sciences and a partner in Shop’In Research Ltd, which specializes in researching consumer- and shopping behavior.
Ms Kirsi Tanner has Master’s Degree in Business Administration. She has over 7 years of working life experience in the field of culture and tourism and 16 years of working life experience in the field of education. Ms Tanner is a senior lecturer of marketing in the Degree Programme in Business Administration at Tampere University of Applied Sciences.