We were once asked to do a global branding project for an outdoor clothing retailer. Instead of going straight to a focus group setting, we really thought about the brand and what would authentically help shape its story. We asked, “How can we take local marketing research expertise and translate it into countries we’ve never been to?” and, “How do we ensure we can leverage the regional differences and still come up with a cohesive, global plan?”

This kind of thinking led us to an alternative (and ambitious) approach… we decided to “go native.”

The first thing we decided to do was to get out and hike trails with local people. We would drive hours to get to our destination and then strike up conversations while hiking with the locals about the clothes they were wearing, and why. We shared meals and stories. It was cross-cultural, and it was give-and-take.

By engaging them on their terms, we could have more candid conversations and go deeper than a 2-hour focus group. It also allowed us to think about how the brand and products could better fit into their lives.

The philosophy of “going native” requires getting out of your comfort zone and really experiencing the country and culture beyond the airport, hotel, and conference room. It means talking to locals (we find cab drivers to be particularly interesting), eating local foods, and visiting places that attract locals, not tourists. It means thinking about them first as humans, before you start thinking about your product, your company, your research project.

When you take this immersive approach in any situation with a global component, something interesting happens: you find that you understand people much better. You get a sense of their history, culture, and lifestyle. It helps you develop empathy. And empathy is the marketer’s dream. It allows you to truly connect in a unique way that demonstrates you understand them. You’re helping them solve for something that is important to them, not you. And it allows you to bridge gaps between culturally diverse places so that you can ultimately develop a global brand with one story.