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In spending time with brands all over Europe and the US, I see the biggest difference being that US firms take a "bigger is better" approach to company growth and operations.

In Europe, companies often prize stability and profitability above top-line growth. Though US companies often have large teams and complex technology stacks, marketers in smaller European enterprises usually take more personal responsibility for their part of the business, wear multiple hats, and develop lean marketing processes to accomplish more with less.

I particularly see this approach to marketing in Germany, where there is a broad-based understanding of the value of lean, focused midsized businesses to the national economy. In fact, those firms have a collective name—Mittelstand.

"In purely statistical terms, any business with fewer than 500 employees is an SME," according to Made in Germany. "But the term 'Mittelstand' is often used to include much larger companies, too, if they are run in the same spirit as a small or medium-sized enterprise."

Business historians describe Mittelstand companies as emotionally invested in their businesses, operating with a lean hierarchy and focusing deeply on customer needs. In the recent publication The Best of German Mittelstand, the authors characterize Mittelstand companies as focusing on "global niche dominance," in which a firm identifies a narrow part of the market to serve, and creating a long-term strategy to dominate that part of the market everywhere it operates.

Focusing on Niche Dominance

Relationship marketers in larger enterprises can take best-practices from Mittelstand companies and operate in that same spirit.

For example, relationship marketers should look to create a "niche dominance" plan that identifies the specific customer needs that they can best meet. To execute the plan, relationship marketers should empower themselves and their team to proceed and act even when there is resistance or divergence from elsewhere in the company.

Relationship marketers must keep pace with consumers even when they operate within an otherwise slow-moving firm.

With a lean management staff, Mittelstand companies empower individuals to execute on their niche dominance plans independently. Relationship marketers can use a niche dominance plan in their own organization to satisfy customer expectations of relevant communication across channels.

For example, if a marketer wants to try to add social media marketing to her loyalty campaigns, she must focus on her own strategy and ignore the social activities of her PR team, other brands, or corporate; those can slow her down.

With a laser focus on the consumer relationship, marketers can move ahead confidently and effectively on specific projects that help meet their goals and satisfy customers.

Forging Ahead

Rather than wait for the whole company to adopt a Mittelstand approach, relationship marketers can be pioneers inside their own organization.

A recent presentation by representatives of several Mittelstand companies emphasized the importance of customer intimacy. No one understands this principle better than the one-to-one marketer.

Consumers want approachability and intimacy. McKinsey writes about the idea of "on-demand marketing" that meets the rising consumer expectations for relevant engagement as technology and data improve.

To deliver on-demand marketing, relationship marketers must stay focused, no matter how big and slow-moving the company that surrounds them is.

For example, rather than wait for the completion of a Big Data project that might give marketing tools access to CRM data, relationship marketers should find "small data" like recent search behavior from their website that's fast and easy to import. Doing so can advance their own strategy with little impact on the rest of the organization.

Similarly, many companies have found the task of creating mobile-friendly websites to be slow and painful as multiple stakeholder voices slow down the process. Relationship marketers need to concentrate on the customer first and create specialized mobile templates and a temporary mobile-friendly presence even as the rest of the company plays catch up.

And though many marketers wish to have more cash at their disposal, bigger budgets don't always lead to better marketing capabilities. Forrester's recent digital maturity model indicates that smaller firms are more likely to be in the most mature digital marketing category.

In a recent survey by Ascend2, 59% of US marketing respondents said that they did not fully utilize their technology stack, and a third said that they don't fully utilize what they have despite not having everything they need.

In other words, there is a lot of money wasted on underused technology. In Europe, I tend to find that marketers work their technology partners harder and smarter out of necessity; they have smaller budgets.

Bigger might be better for some things, but the Mittelstand ethos can be just right when you want to stay close to your customers as they advance beyond the pace of your own organization. After all, in a space like relationship marketing, one-to-one is the best size of all.

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image of Nick Worth

Nick Worth is CMO of Selligent, a leading independent provider of 1-to-1 engagement solutions for relationship marketers.

LinkedIn: Nick Worth 

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