How marketing strategists help CEOs drive international business growth

Kathrin Bussmann’s interview with Sean Duffy, Part 1 of 4...

27 Sep 2021 1340 Views


Kathrin Bussmann’s interview with Sean Duffy, Part 1 of 4

How can CEOs use strategic marketing to grow their business internationally, and how do consultants help in that process? This is one of the topics Sean Duffy recently discussed with international marketing expert Kathrin Bussmann on her Worldly Marketer Podcast. We are presenting that interview in four parts edited for length and clarity. In this segment, Kathrin and Sean discuss the nature of strategic marketing consulting and international brands exploring: 

  • What does an average workweek look like for a strategic marketing consultant?
  • What problems do strategic marketing consultants solve for clients who market internationally?
  • What types of companies can benefit from strategic marketing and brand consulting?

Kathrin Bussmann:

You’re listening to the Worldly Marketer Podcast brought to you by This episode is sponsored by Vistatec, providing global content solutions for organizations worldwide since 1997. Many of the world’s most iconic brands count on Vistatec’s full suite of translation and localization services to help them accelerate their global success. Visit today.

Welcome to the Worldly Marketer Podcast. I’m your host Kathrin Bussmann. In the digital age, brands of all sizes are building their global presence by leveraging the right market research, positioning, online channels and localized content. On this show, I talk with a variety of experts who specialize in helping brands expand internationally and succeed in today’s increasingly digital, social, and multilingual marketplace. Join me as I explore this ever-evolving landscape of global possibilities.

My guest today is [Sean Duffy] an international brand strategist and the founder of Duffy Agency, a strategic marketing agency that specializes in international brand development. Headquartered in Malmö, Sweden, Duffy Agency works to fill the expertise gap that businesses typically experience as they set out to compete on an international stage. The agency has worked with clients from over 30 different countries and has collaborated with partner agencies in 50 other cities around the world.

As CEO, my guest divides his time between Duffy Agency’s main office in Sweden and its US office in Boston, Massachusetts. Born and raised in the US, my guest has over 30 years of experience working in strategic marketing. 

Sean began his career in Boston as a copywriter with BBDO, the global advertising agency. And later he worked as creative director for an ad agency in San Francisco. In 1991, he moved to Stockholm to work as creative director at Sweden’s largest ad agency Lowe Brindfors which is now part of the MullenLowe and IPG, the Interpublic Group. 

After 10 years with IPG working exclusively on international marketing, he decided to found his own agency. In addition, to his role at Duffy Agency, my guest is a lecturer and practitioner in residence at the Lund University School of Economics and Management and a mentor in their master’s program in entrepreneurship.

He is also a frequent speaker on international marketing and online brand management and he draws on his experience working with dozens of global brands, including Ikea, the United Nations, Saab, Volvo, Absolute, VF Corporation, Pfizer, and GSK. 

Last but not least, my guest is the author of an excellent new book called International Brand Strategy: A Guide to Achieving Global Brand Growth. Sean Duffy, welcome to the Worldly Marketer Podcast.

Sean Duffy:

Thank you, Kathrin. It’s great to be here.

Kathrin Bussmann:

It is such a pleasure to have you on the show, Sean. I was telling you just before I hit the record button, I just absolutely loved your book, International Brand Strategy. It’s the book I’ve been waiting for years. I couldn’t seem to find one quite like this one. It’s a book that I really think everyone should read. Everyone who’s involved in any way shape or form with international brand growth especially people who are in industries that are related to international brand growth like localization, the localization industry, it’s a book that really helps to give an overview of what’s involved and all the different aspects that go into growing and maintaining, and developing a global brand in this day and age.


Kathrin Bussmann:

So congratulations on the launch of this book. I think it’s a book that I’m going to keep close at hand at all times and refer to very often, and I recommend it to everyone out there. Sean, you’re the CEO and chief brand strategist at Duffy Agency, your agency which you founded in 2001. Of course, this agency specializes in international growth strategy and global brand management. 

Can you talk a bit more about where you’re based and why you’re based there?

Sean Duffy:

Duffy Agency has always had a presence in Sweden and in the US. We incorporated in both countries at the same time. For a while we had an office in Berlin as well. I was based in Sweden for most of my career. But with the kind of work we do, I spent most of my time flying around to other places. 

In 2018, my wife and I decided that the time was right for us to move back to the US. We have small kids and we wanted  them to know their US relatives and to get the American experience. So we came back.  

I moved from San Francisco to Sweden in 1991, planning to stay for three years. So my three-year trip to Europe actually lasted 27 years. Today, Duffy Agency still has the same setup. We have offices in Sweden, in the US, but today I’m based on the US side of the pond. I live about 40 minutes north of Boston now.

Kathrin Bussmann: 

What does an average workweek look like for a strategic marketing consultant?

Sean Duffy:

My average week: I’m happy to say that around 80% of it is still hands-on work with the team working on international branding and marketing strategy for clients and the research that goes into that. 

First is the research. It’s trying to understand the buyers in the culture and context in which they live, which is important. It’s finding out what colors their perceptions and purchase decisions. We’re really mining insights in that sense.  Hopefully they are proprietary insights that the competitors haven’t discovered yet. 

Once we have those, the second part is taking those insights and we articulate them in the form of strategies: marketing strategy and brand strategies that will give a competitive advantage to the clients. 

The third part of my job is something that is a little under their radar, but is super important. That is consensus building. I spend a lot of time working with CEOs and leadership teams. Finding the insight and coming up with the strategy isn’t the hardest part, typically. The hardest part is actually getting those things operationalized inside the organization. That is the most challenging part and where many strategies fail. You have different pushback from different people. A lot of people don’t really understand either marketing or brand strategy or the implications of implementing this internationally. 

I’d say those three things occupy most of my work. The other 20% is doing things like running the business, working on new business development, and speaking on podcasts, for instance. 

Kathrin Bussmann:

Tell me a bit more about the agency itself. What kinds of problems do you solve for your clients exactly? 

Sean Duffy:

The problems Duffy Agency solves are really the problems that come with understanding buyers in different cultures and developing marketing strategy, and brand identity for them.That usually breaks down into three buckets. 

1. We help CEOs make sense of what’s happening in the market. 

The first is really detective work. I like to say we solve marketing mysteries. “Why do parents in Austria struggle to understand what our offer is?” or “What makes Brazilian women choose one beauty treatment over another?” or “Why do engineers in India buy the competitor’s product even though ours is better?”

Answering questions about local markets is a big part of what we do. But if you notice one thing about those questions, it’s that they’re not the kind of questions that you can answer with a market research study that you bought or by looking at your web analytics. They really require human contact. You really have to understand the person that’s buying the product to get to these insights. 

When decisions are made, particularly in mid-sized companies, the local buyer’s perspective is rarely factored in, and that’s a mistake. Often, a very costly mistake down the road. This isn’t as much of a problem in big multinationals because they have figured this out, but in my experience its the norm in mid-sized companies. 

90% of the marketing questions that keep CEOs and CMOs up at night in mid-sized companies could be reliably answered by the local buyers if they just knew how to ask them. 

So we’re extremely buyer-centric at Duffy Agency. We believe everything starts with the buyers because, at the end of the day, they’re in the driver’s seat. I mean, they’re going to buy your product or not. They’re going to tell people about it or not. So they’re basically ground zero for us in any kind of engagement. 

2. We help CEOs reduce and manage business risk in the markets they serve. 

The other problem we solve is risk reduction. I make the point in the book (International Brand Strategy)  that anyone who’s working in marketing has heard all the dire statistics about failure rates for new products. Selling a product in a market that’s 1,000 miles away or 3,000 miles away in a culture that’s different from yours is just a risky proposition.

Even in the best of cases, there will be blind spots. But the people in the management team won’t know that they have these blind spots until it’s too late. So what we try to do is anticipate these blind spots for our clients, help them get a better picture of the market so that they can make better marketing decisions. And that reduces risk and costly mistakes.

People often ask me, “Oh, so you’re an expert on all the cultures of the world?” I say flatly, “No, we are not experts on all 195 countries. No one is. But we do have a reliable methodology that’s repeatable and that’s been successfully used in hundreds of cases to really get the answers that marketers need to succeed when they’re entering foreign markets”. 

3. We help CEOs reduce the time it takes to reach their business goals. 

The last, and maybe the most important, problem we solve is time. We get insights from the buyers that help us help the client avoid making mistakes. But there’s the flip side of that, which is they also reveal great opportunities. So using those insights, we create marketing and brand strategies that can accelerate sales and brand equity. 

I often feel when you have a great product, there’s a good chance it’s going to succeed eventually, anyhow. But instead of just letting it meander along and get to a point where it succeeds in 20 or 30 years, there’s a lot of financial gain in accelerating that development and getting it to cruising altitude, if you will, quicker.

Kathrin Bussmann:

I like how you say buyer rather than customer or client because that encompasses both of those and it really drives home the point that there’s someone out there holding the purse strings and that person is the economic buyer who makes that decision whether or not to spend money on your brand. 

Sean Duffy:

Yes, absolutely. We’ve had a lot of internal debate. Some people in the company hate that word. As a writer, I’m very focused on words. When you say “customers,” which is the usual way to say it, it really rules out a whole lot of possibilities. Customers are not the only people you need to talk to. You need to talk to prospects and you need to talk to customers because we have two halves of the coin. We have to attract people to buy our product, but then we have to keep them buying. “Buyers” is a more neutral word.

Kathrin Bussmann:

What kinds of clients do you work with in terms of what size are they typically? Where are they based?

Sean Duffy:

At IPG we were working mostly with Fortune 500, big companies. So when I left IPG to start Duffy Agency, I kept working with those types of clients. They’re easy targets for people who are working in international marketing because we all know them. One of the things I didn’t like about those companies was that to really affect change in a company that size, you need to work directly with leadership. You can’t do it with a regional marketing manager.

As a new consulting firm, we weren’t going to be engaging with the CEO of PepsiCo or Coca-Cola or Unilever to make a sweeping change. So we shifted our focus to mid-sized firms with high growth potential and international ambitions where we work directly with CEOs and leadership teams.

With regard to the type of clients we work with today, the best way to define them is to look at the Duffy Agency work-in-progress (WIP) sheet. Every Monday we produce a work in progress sheet that  lists what’s going on in the agency that week. Right now, we have

  • A UK educational company that is developing a marketing strategy and corporate rebrand because they would like to go into China.
  • We’re working with a Swedish company that’s developing a global brand positioning and marketing strategy. They have an amazing biomarker technology which is really going to be game changing and this will help doctors diagnose diseases years earlier than they can today. That’s one of the most exciting things  we’re working on.
  • We’re looking at a functional food company from the Ivory Coast in West Africa. They have an incredible social impact story to tell. When you’re developing brands, brands like this are really gratifying to work on because it’s wonderful to have that kind of a story to convey out to the world.
  • We’re developing a feasibility study for a company in Egypt that wants to understand how consumers in the US and Europe think about their product.
  • We’re working with a US robotics company on a very common problem. They’ve achieved a lot of growth by merger and acquisition. So we’re helping them develop a global brand architecture and protocols for how to merge brands in. They know how to merge the facilities and the employees and the systems together, but oftentimes in a merger and acquisition, very little thought is done to how we’re going to incorporate the brands into our company.
  • We have two projects right now in the Netherlands. We’re doing a surgical product which we’re helping develop the value proposition and positioning for a global launch. 
  • We’re also working with another Dutch company where we’re doing a corporate rebrand to give them more awareness outside of Europe. They’ve had a really hard time getting awareness. If you have a weak brand, it is notoriously difficult to start to build awareness because you’re basically forgettable. So you’re pouring money into media. You’re trying to get your brand out there and you don’t get any traction. That’s a pretty typical result that happens with a weak brand.
  • We’re working with a biotech company, we’re helping them help genetic engineers get therapies to market quicker.
  • We’re working with an Italian company in the olive oil industry. They want to diversify and we’re helping them fill out that process a little bit, see what that could bring and also how it would impact their brand because they have a very strong regional brand.

That’s pretty much what a week in the Duffy Agency looks like. It’s funny actually going through this. We talked earlier about how I started out wanting to be a physician. We tend to attract a lot of life science clients. We’re not a life science agency, but we tend always to have four or five active life science projects on the books. I don’t know if that’s a coincidence or just destiny. 

Kathrin Bussmann:

Wow. It’s a nice diversity of clients there from many different types of industries. Very, very interesting. Are there certain industries that you prefer to work with?

Sean Duffy:

There’s a big push in marketing services to specialize in one vertical and we talk about this at least every other year. Should we just go for this one niche? Getting back to the curiosity, I can see there might be benefits in that, but I also think that when we come into a client having worked in so many different industries, we bring in a completely different perspective.

And it happens almost with every engagement. We’re borrowing ideas and thoughts from research we’ve done in other segments. That is still applicable because underneath it all, yeah, the products are different, but the laws of marketing are very similar on a foundational level and there’s a lot we can learn and transfer there. 


End of Segment 1 of 4

In the next segment of Kathrin Bussmann’s interview with Sean Duffy, the two discuss Sean’s new book, International Brand Strategy: A Guide to Achieving Global Brand Growth. They will discuss the case of US retailer, Target, and how strategic blind spots led to its spectacular failure when trying to take the business internationally. 


Like this post? You'll find more marketing insights in my new book: International Brand Strategy: A guide to achieving global brand growth, now available from booksellers globally. Order your copy here.

Sean Duffy | @brandranter
Speaker, consultant & founder of Duffy Agency, the flipped digital agency that provides accelerated growth to aspiring international brands.