Understanding the Vietnamese market and its people
Stepping into a new market can be confusing as you’re dealing with a new culture, new mindset and unfamiliar way of working. What applies in your country might not be relevant to other markets and the local employees you’re going to hire. For companies that are planning to enter Vietnam or want to know this market but don’t know where to start, this article is the one for you. Here are some head-ups for multinational companies to keep in mind when venturing into Vietnam.
First of all, brand messaging and business operations need to be adjusted to local norms and culture. With a history that dates back more than 4,000 years, Vietnam is a very high-context country with social norms. The local people prioritize their tradition, doing what they always feel like doing. When working with local employees or pitching a product to local customers, foreign brands should be aware of these. Making a mistake or disrespecting these norms might lead to discomfort or even a large-scale boycott – which is now very easy thanks to call-out, or cancel culture and the adoption of social media.
For example: Coca-Cola once launched the campaign “Mở lon Việt Nam (Opening Vietnam’s can)” to cheer for the country’s national football team in the 2018 AFF Championship. However, the country name “Vietnam” is significant to the local audience and cannot be placed next to the word ‘can.’ The phrase makes no sense and is grammatically incorrect. Vietnamese phonology is very diverse. Without tone marks, the word ‘lon’ could be understood as ‘a can,’ but it can also be ‘dirty slang.’ Therefore, the whole phrase ‘Mo Lon Vietnam’ is ambiguous. In the end, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism fined Coca-Cola an amount of 25.000.000 VND (1.100 USD) and requested the brand to stop all marketing-related activities. Going against traditional cultural values can damage the brand severely. In the worst-case scenario, it could signal the end of your business or your career.
Second of all, Vietnamese people prioritize personal relationships:
• Business meetings: In the first business meeting, your Vietnamese partner might expect to build personal connections and mutual trust rather than discussing business decisions. Having a high-context culture, their business decisions can even be based on how they see you as a person outside of the business.
• Social connections: It is easier to approach Vietnamese business owners and build a relationship with them if you have common ties. Therefore, having someone credible introduce you to local partners is a good way to kickstart the partnership.
• Daily conversation: Vietnamese usually mix their personal life with their business life, which is considered to be polite. So don’t be taken aback if they enquire about your private life.
• Seniority & hierarchy: Most companies in Vietnam adopt the principle of a top-down hierarchical structure. So remember to respect people according to their age, education and job position. When it comes to meeting with a Vietnamese partner, you should always introduce yourself to the eldest person or the one with the highest position.
• The concept of ‘taking someone at face value’: While Westerners value frank and direct qualities, Vietnamese are not quite as open-minded to this approach. Direct disagreement or raising questions in public can cause a person to “lose face” in Vietnam. In other words, damaging their reputation, dignity, and prestige in the presence of others is not welcomed.
Because of this culture, they can agree with you on the outside, but not on the inside. This is what is considered to be polite locally.
To conduct business with local stakeholders (partners, employees, government officials, etc.), be sure to learn your Vietnamese business etiquette to avoid getting on their blacklist.
Finally, while social media is on the rise, traditional media is still trusted by the public, so knowing the media landscape and how the media works could be advantageous. Reporters prefer to work with local people, so it’s recommended that foreign brands have a local representative to build relationships with them.
EloQ Communications is an official partner of Public Relations Network. This article was originally posted on EloQ’s blog.