I’m officially back. I was unofficially back from Hungary two weeks ago, but it was so nice being gone, I decided to lay low for awhile and see if anyone noticed. I spent so much blissful time away from my computer, I’ve forgotten what a keyboard feels like.
Let me start by saying what a phenomenal, beautiful, exciting country Hungary is. It felt like stepping back into a Europe of the past, undiscovered by the hordes of tour-bus travelers. I have no doubt it will be "discovered" soon–it is a very modern and friendly country with great food, beautiful architecture, and a fascinating history, all at about half the price of the rest of Europe. The biggest drawback for Americans is that very few people speak English, and once you get out of Budapest, unless you know some German or Russian, you’re reduced to smiles and pantomime.
I won’t bore you with the whole travelogue of My Trip to Hungary, but just a few impressions related to what I usually muse about here, and I’ll bring it round to a relevant conclusion for marketers.
As a westerner traveling in an unfamiliar Eastern European country, I often felt like I was traveling in a parallel universe. When you’re in the countryside, it’s a romantic idyll right out of a coffee-table book. There are medieval castles and cobblestone streets, old men driving horse-drawn carts, and babushkas carrying bundles of firewood on their backs. But when you come into a major town, it’s like you haven’t left home. The speed of economic progress and development in Hungary has deposited convenience-store gas stations, Big Box mega stores and major shopping malls in every city. When you walk into a mall, it’s a mirror image of any mall in America, except the brands are different, everyone is speaking a language you don’t understand, and all the signs are completely unintelligible. It’s a little disconcerting walking around in such a familiar setting of bright lights and buzz, but feeling everything just slightly off by half a degree of reality.
Clearly Hungary, now as a member of the EU, is moving rapidly toward a full-scale Western economy–notwithstanding their recent election of a socialist party to government, and it seems that a lot of investment is flowing. You can see evidence of the pace of investment the moment you leave the airport, particularly in the predominance of advertising on every surface available. It appears that T-Mobile owns Hungary–their pink ads are completely ubiquitous everywhere in the country. Billboards, buses and taxis, phone booths, building broadsides, subway cars–whoever has the outdoor advertising account for T-Mobile has a monster of a job–and commission.
One thing that I found surprising in Hungary, and thought-provoking, is the attitude towards communism. It’s natural for a Western tourist to notice some of the vestiges of Hungary’s history as a soviet satellite with a strange mix of nostalgia, dread and superiority. This attitude is catered to for a profit, with a popular terror museum in Budapest, and a fascinating park where many of the overbearing statues of Lenin and the idealized proletariat have been gathered for posterity. But when you talk to Hungarians, they aren’t nearly as thankful for the fall of communism as you might expect. Time after time, Hungarians young and old replied to the question "How are things different for you?", with a common refrain: "It was safer; there was less crime. Medical care was better. Schools were much better. Retirement was better." A common example given–probably because schools were just getting out for the summer–was that under the communists, all children had access to a range of activities during the summer, one of the most popular being sailing on Lake Balaton. Now, you have to pay for your children’s activities on your own, and the expense has put Hungary’s favorite pass time out of reach for all but the most wealthy.
The most succinct summation of the frustration Hungarians feel under the transition to a free-market economy was that in the past they had no opportunity, but the means to live day to day. Now they have plenty of opportunity, but no means. Surprisingly, I heard this perspective even from a cousin who appears to be quite wealthy. He works for a successful software company as an engineer, and lives with his wife and family in a beautiful new custom home in a wooded suburb of Budapest. But for all the trappings of a beautiful life, the stress of the economic lifestyle–working 12-hour days under a constant string of deadlines and deliverables–may not deliver the dream they’ve all been sold on.
Obviously, opinions and experiences vary widely–and I suspect they are very different from country-to-country depending on how communism was administered. But I relay these impressions only because of my surprise that the black-and-white version of history that we know and love as the Americans who defeated the Evil Empire isn’t as simple as it seemed. And here’s where I’ll bring it all around and tie it into the theme of this blog.
Emerging markets are one of the biggest new arenas for business investment and marketing. It’s easy to see on the surface the differences between emerging markets like Brazil, Russia, India and China. But it’s important to understand that economic outlook and opportunities are greatly influenced by the attitudes of the market, and even in neighboring countries in Europe, those attitudes not only vary widely, but can be significantly at odds with what we expect. Even as a relatively informed and open-minded person, I was significantly surprised at what I learned on the ground in an emerging market of great interest and value to Western investors. Our views of history are not shared, and our views of the future are not embraced enthusiastically by all. How does that impact the perception of how we do business, and especially how we address emerging markets?