Macro/Micro: Tapping into the macrotrends

Coca-Cola pays people just to read. The company literally has a team of folks paid to read more or less all day in order to watch for microtrends. They read whatever they want — business books, novels, newspapers. It’s my dream job. But Coke’s Tom LaForge, global director of Human and Cultural Insights, describes it a lot better when he discusses the company’s trend-watching department. “There are a lot of macroforces that are out there,” LaForge said at the 2010 Sustainable Brands Conference in Monterey, California. “Macroforces are so big that they’re changing everybody’s lives from day to day.”

From his perspective, keeping an eye on macroforces keeps the company’s brand thriving in the 200+ countries where it’s sold. His team specializes in meta-analysis, in seeking out patterns in society as a way to predict where the force of microtrends and purchasing power will go. It may sound a little John Nash, but the beautiful mind at work here realizes that micro is always chiseled out of macro — that something larger is always at work. When society and culture change, people’s values change, and when people’s values change, their purchasing decisions change with them. Changing macroforces, such as immigration or environmental consciousness, will in turn change us all. They will change the way we think, the way we live and the way we do business.

For a company the size of Coca-Cola, the answers are clear. Mass immigration over time creates a shift in labor availability; environmental changes affect the water supply required to manufacture the company’s soft drinks. When a company is a moveable force within itself, it’s easy to see how sensitive it should be to every adjustment in consumer insight. Coca-Cola, if you will, is arguably a macroforce on its own. Marika McCauley Sine, Coke’s international public affairs director, knows this all too well. By 2020, the majority of Coca-Cola’s non-US resellers will be small businesses, largely run by women. Realizing women-owned businesses face unique challenges, McCauley Sine has been charged with determining how Coca-Cola can help these businesses become more successful, both to ensure Coke’s own success as well as that of the communities where these women live. In this way, Coca-Cola could become a powerful macroforce in developing areas such as Africa — where the program is primarily geared — and for the female-owned supply chain as a whole.

But for a business the size of most translation companies — US-based Association of Language Companies (ALC) reports 59.6% of its members only have three to ten employees — this becomes a great deal harder. Instead of predicting and controlling trends, as Coca-Cola does, most translation companies wind up following them or in some cases even fighting them. How else can we explain many language service providers’ (LSP) truculence to integrate machine technology or collaborative translation models? The macrotrends are here. They are in our translation buyer’s culture, and we as translation sellers cannot ignore them and still thrive.

My first computer was an Apple IIC, and no other child I knew had a computer at home. This was in the mid-1980s. This was the early predictor point for the macroforce that would create the kind of world we have today, where my cousin Suzy happily reported on Facebook that her second-grade son just e-mailed his first PowerPoint presentation to his teacher. When I was in high school, so few of my peers owned computers that our high school teachers still accepted handwritten papers. Could this change in K-12 academics have been predicted when my parents bought that Apple IIC? Even in the mid-1990s, when Business Week, Fortune and others all predicted Apple would close, the company kept a strong marketing focus on the educational sector. Now, I won’t go so far as to say this focus is what saved Apple. What created Apple’s business boom was staying ahead of another trend, individualism, but if any company was able to see the strong role technology would play in education and apply this vision back to the business, it was Apple.

Translation in itself is a large industry, but the ALC is right. Most of us are small businesses. And as small businesses, we may not have Coca-Cola or Apple’s resources, but that doesn’t mean we have to go without their vision. In his book Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big, Bo Burlingham profiles eight different companies that may not be the biggest at what they do, but they are the best. Even in the writing of this book, Burlingham, former editor of Inc., is acknowledging another macroforce growing in our culture: the return of the small business. From the Occupy movement to Small Business Saturday, American society as well as other societies are striking out against mogul corporations and big-box brands, with a return to buying local that sends hipsters out in droves to purchase overpriced consignment store clothing. Even outside the cities in rural areas, downtown revitalization grants promise job creation to a red America where job creation is more important than anything. Burlingham is right when he writes that “quietly and gradually — under the radar, as it were — a new class of great companies has been forming. These companies don’t fit comfortably into any of the three categories we normally put businesses in: big, getting big, and small” (xv).

Be we small or large, it’s in all of our best interest to study the macroforces that shape the world we translate in. The economic situation in Portugal and Greece compared to the rest of Europe will affect translation pricing and, of course, the demand for both Portuguese and Greek. It’s only by studying this and patterns in the past that we can predict how to prepare our own businesses for the future. The rise of the middle class in India and Africa affects how well our clients can perform there, which will increase the demand for Indian and African languages. When the markets are fully ready to support our clients exporting to these areas, will your LSP be well enough prepared to serve them?

And it’s not just economics, either. Postmodernism has erased the clear-cut nature that used to exist for right and wrong; it makes all truths subjective. Are you prepared for how this changes client-side review, where a translation is no longer right or wrong, but rather measured for right or wrongness on an adaptable scale? Environmental changes and the emphasis on growing woman-owned businesses press ever forward, both growing more important as new certifications come into play and clients are required to increase Tier 2 and even Tier 3 reporting. These pressures will fall upon our industry, if they haven’t already. Our businesses must prepare the internal structure we will need to survive.

Over the next few issues of MultiLingual, I’ll take a look at what these 
macroforces are and give my opinion on how I think they could affect us. I have some ideas already, but I’m open to your suggestions, too. I am just one LSP owner, living in Louisville, Kentucky, seeing what I see. But what do you see?  What do you think as you look out into the changing world around us and reflect upon how it could change your business? Whatever it is, I encourage you to choose staying ahead of the curve versus keeping up with the Joneses. We can follow as an industry, or we can lead — but leading requires keeping ourselves and our clients a step ahead.