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Marketing lessons from the dogs of Chile

By Medill IMC student Dan Rice, president of Thayer Leader Development Group at West Point

Great lessons can be learned from taking classes overseas, lessons you will not find in the typical college course description. Last week I traveled to Santiago, Chile to take a class as part of my Masters in Integrated Marketing Communications from Northwestern University. The class was comprised of students from Northwestern’s full time, part time and online programs in partnership with an MBA program from University Diego Portales in Santiago. The class focused on conceptual frameworks to improve innovations for all types of companies and included visits to Deloitte, Google and the world’s largest organic wine producer, a Chilean company called Emiliana.

Dog in the sun

Classes and content such as this could easily be taught in the U.S. at Northwestern’s beautiful Evanston campus. However, for those of us students fortunate enough to travel overseas, much of the learning comes from exposure to other students and international cultures with different norms, values and beliefs. With this exposure we hope to better understand the local culture, and understand how to market products and services globally with newfound knowledge and insights. Over the last three decades, I have traveled for business and tourism to over 70 countries. Despite these experiences, I know with more travel I will always learn more.

On this trip, I learned the most fascinating cultural and marketing lessons from the most serendipitous of instructors: the dogs of Chile.

See the world through potential customers’ eyes

As a marketer and a traveler, I try not to transpose my American beliefs on another culture. But despite best intentions, I was guilty of doing so on this trip. While the objective is to see the world through another lens, our own experiences impact the way in which we view the world. Specifically, I have observed the different ways different cultures treat their dogs in places like North America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. But I have never seen them treated like I saw them treated in Chile. Like humans, we can sometimes stereotype dogs, and I found myself doing so immediately with the dogs I saw running wild in Chile. I wrongly used American “labels’ to describe their lives and their fate ­— strays, homeless, wild — to dogs I barely knew. I felt sorry for these dogs, I pitied them, some feared them. I, and we, felt this way because we didn’t understand the culture. We weren’t seeing the world through their eyes.

Engaging with your audience

In an effort to understand the dogs of Chile, we began where all good stories start, with bartenders. Sitting in a sunny, picturesque bar in Valparaiso, we engaged the bartenders about the dogs we saw roaming the streets. One bartender in particular raved about the dogs, and immediately lit up as we asked her questions. This one conversation sparked chatter with other bartenders and patrons throughout the bar, people would walk by and chime in with their love for the dogs. They could not understand why we wouldn’t engage with the dogs. The Chileans loved the dogs who roamed the streets, they frequently pet dogs that they did not know. They were not afraid. In each neighborhood in Santiago and Valparaiso, the locals gave the dogs names. Instead of calling them “strays” or “homeless” or “wild,” they called them endearing names such as “dogs with no bosses” and “dogs with many mothers” (since so many people would feed them every day). The Chilean people were universally proud of the community dogs who could roam and live “free.” This was how the people in Santiago and Valparaiso described the dogs of Chile: “free.” But, it wasn’t until we engaged with both the Chileans and the dogs that we realized these dogs were owned and loved by the community as a whole, by the people.

The importance of empathy

As Americans, we looked at the dogs of Chile as if they were being mistreated, that the people of Chile were not treating well the animals who lived and roamed in their city. We felt “bad’ for them and many of us would not pet or play with them. The Chileans were the exact opposite. I looked at the dogs with pity, when I should have looked at both the people and the dogs of Chile with empathy. In any marketing field, it is critical to have or develop empathy as a skill. In learning to be an empathetic marketer, you open your eyes to the customer or client’s experiences and emotions. Until we put ourselves in the shoes of the Chilean people and actively tried to empathize with their emotional connection to the dogs, we could not understand. These dogs were free, they were not wild. And they were not to be pitied, but rather to be loved. The people loved the dogs of Chile, and the dogs of Chile loved the people.

Understanding complex history

For a country that was once a battleground of the Cold War, first ruled by Marxists from 1970 to 1973, and then the brutal and murderous dictator Augusto Pinochet until 1990, the word “freedom” has a special value to it. The Chilean people saw that and valued it in their dogs. Since the end of the dictatorship, Chile has flourished and become a major player in international trade. The more we learned about the history and the culture, the more we could see the happiness in both the people and in the dogs. For example, on the university campus, dogs were everywhere, rolling in the grass, sunning upside down, being petted by students, but owned by no one in particular, they were owned by all of the students. Since most of the young people we spoke with were in their early 20s, they hadn’t experienced the worst of Chile’s tumultuous years and were instead flourishing under the freedom of democracy. In a way, the dogs of Chile symbolized the freedom of their people.

Breaking down biases

To further destroy our previous biases for these dogs, many of the Chileans would pull out their phones to show us different photos of their favorite dogs. They did this not to prove a point or actively break down our biases (which it did), but out of pride for the dogs. One female bartender in Valparaiso asked if we knew of a dog named “Julio,” in Spanish he was known as "Perro Julio.” We did not. She pulled out her phone to show us a local news story that had been played on the mainstream media network and then posted on YouTube. The five-minute segment told the story of Julio. It included interviews from many locals who had known and loved the dog, featured a song and music video about Julio and at one point, thanks to GoPro, showed the street level perspective of how a dog of Chile viewed the world.

I asked what had happened to Perro Julio and, sadly, he had been hit by a car and killed. All of us were saddened, after hearing all the great things about Julio, to learn that he had found such a tragic fate. But the bartender smiled and said “no, no, don’t be sad, he lived free, and he died free.”

Marketing is all about finding an emotional and experiential connection with a client or customer. I had the same emotional connection with the dogs as the people we met and spoke to in Chile. The difference was that I misunderstood their experience. Seeing the world through their eyes, engaging with the people around us, attempting to understand a complex history and breaking down biases, I was better equipped to appreciate the people (and the dogs) of Chile. By learning about the dogs of Chile, we really learned about the beautiful, free people of Chile.

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn

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