“Know thyself. Know the customer. Innovate.” is what Beth Comstock, former Vice-Chair of GE, an international brand that’s no stranger to taking a product global once said and when it comes to marketing and sales, she’s spot on. Just as products need to be localized in order for companies to find success in Europe, so do the messages that build awareness and sell them. 

Since international expansion is our bread and butter, I have spent a lot of time outlining the right marketing and sales strategies for companies looking for growth in Europe. While at Airbnb, I had the opportunity to adapt a very well functioning U.S. marketing strategy to a local market with a very different mindset. And over the years, I understood that it’s not only a matter of mindset, but also a question of changing times. It’s often one of the greatest challenges of expansion because companies need to go back in time and deploy different tactics to attract and sell to their first customers,  but what they did in their home market is probably already out of date. The answer on how to solve this dilemma is vastly different for each company, but I’d like to share a few vital truisms that can make getting to that answer a whole lot easier.

Businesses need to consider: “How do I get my first thousand customers?”

This question would seem like an effortless walk in the park to most companies looking to expand, at least at first glance. By definition, to get to this point, they’ve already executed on a playbook, moved far beyond a simple foothold of their home turf and have things figured out, so why not just repeat what works? The answer quite simply is that their playbook for successfully gaining a foothold is out of date and probably off-topic. What worked in the U.S. won’t necessarily work in Europe and after several years of growth, even the core technologies that a business utilized at their time of initial growth might be completely irrelevant.

Adapting a company’s branding to Europe:

  • Many U.S. companies rely on a founder-centric brand image – think Warren Buffett, who is constantly enshrined as the “Oracle of Omaha”, Steve Jobs, or Elon Musk, whose name dominate the headlines before talk of his companies’ names. Likewise, many direct to consumer companies like Casper, Allbirds, and Dollar Shave Club have a founder-led approach — their message: here’s three guys in college who re-invented how to shave, it’s about them as people.


  • Elon Musk is the Elon Musk of Europe. Europeans care more about the nuts and bolts of the product and its quality and less about CEO-centric branding. When I was part of the team leading Airbnb’s European expansion our most successful campaigns were those that focused on the process of how Airbnb works, as opposed to a more emotional and personal approach for the U.S. market.


A company’s expansion blueprint should draw from both what works at present and what worked in the “early days”

  • When moving to Europe, companies must start over in some sense. The playbook they ran to get to where they are today isn’t the same one that will work for their expansion. One of our customers, Wonder Workshop, achieved their early U.S. success through brick and mortar retail, but by the time they were ready to expand to Europe, the shift towards online shopping was full steam ahead. We adapted and built a much more Amazon-centric approach as their springboard for conquering the European market, and it worked.


Success can be based on a global formula, but don’t forget local partners

  • Some strategies do work everywhere. At Airbnb, the biggest marketing pillar is users sharing their experiences organically. The largest paid channel is SEM, which is so tech-driven a successful formula can work anywhere. The only adaptation necessary is to localize the language of those ads, both in a literal sense and culturally. Coca-Cola, Nike, Levis, and Netflix are all perfect examples of a great global formula that works quickly and effectively with a few tweaks.


  • Local partnerships can be high loyalty and high yield. In Germany for example, consumers have a high level of affinity for certain brands – Mercedes, Lufthansa, and Deutsche Telekom to name a few – that’s why Airbnb’s first-ever partnership in the German market was with Deutsche Telekom. The partnership saw a joint marketing campaign that gained a high level of traction and included the pre-installation of the Airbnb app for Deutsche Telekom customers.


  • Not every company can partner with high loyalty brands and that’s ok. Even with our Deutsche Telekom partnership at Airbnb, we also ran super-local partnerships with brands that had little notoriety but were high fit. The German version of craigslist (covering apartments only) is about one of the most no-frills sites imaginable and customers have little brand attachment to it. Yet, because of it being a high fit partner in the apartment space, it turned into one of Airbnb’s best partnerships globally and the ads (started in 2011) still run successfully today.


Listen before selling

  • Sales strategies need to change based on how software now spreads. Software used to be sold to the CIO of large companies (think Oracle & SAP), whereas today they start off as consumer products (i.e. Slack and Zoom) and progress to becoming big-ticket items. That means sales teams generally need to be deployed strategically at a different part of the process, change their approaches of companies and be in touch with what a new set of consumers want in their product. In new markets, sales teams must be incentivized not just on selling but based on listening as well. 


Give your European operations the ability to learn and the freedom to make decisions

One of the most common mistakes companies can make is not trusting their European team. European employees have to know what makes the organization tick and be thought of as the resource that they are. They have the day to day interactions with customers or clients and they often need to make critical decisions without having to deal with a bureaucratic chain of command in a far-removed continent. That’s not to say HQ plays no role, but the relationship has to be strategically managed to make that “tip of the spear” team sharp, capable, and incredibly effective.


  • No amount of emojis will build trust. Having European teams spend time at HQ isn’t just good because of the knowledge, it fosters that essential building block, trust, which glues teams together and allows for the freedom that is necessary for an agile European operation that is able to make the best decisions possible for the company. A deal, or an approach might sound crazy to someone at a far-flung HQ but it’s based on the facts on the ground and could be right. Intel HQ famously pushed back against their Israeli office’s advice to develop dual-core processors, but trust (and perhaps a bit of arguing) made that technological leap a reality.


  • We’ve all seen the power of face to face. Recently a client told me “I can’t believe how much more we get done when we spend three days in the same place, compared to weeks and months on email, Slack and Zoom” and that’s an existing relationship that has lasted a couple of years already.


Marketing and sales are the longterm key to an organization’s success or failure, so the pressure to jump in and close deals quickly is understandable. However, that cannot be a start up’s first goal because sales-reps can’t execute by simply being handed a phone from day one without knowing their customer and marketing teams that create leads can’t fully target an audience with a copy and paste approach alone. Enterprises need to stay focused on doing a few things very well and get to know their target customers, while it’s up to both HQ and teams abroad to create the trust necessary to execute. The right words will attract the customer and close a deal, but it’s up to the organization to make sure that customers and their own teams to make sure that the message isn’t lost in translation.

I’d love to hear your feedback and input – and I hope this will help with your marketing and sales strategy in Europe. We’re here also here to support you — If you’re ready to take the next step in planning and executing your European expansion, get in touch!