How to make a pitch for foreign investment

Two events in January – a French campaign to get foreign businesses to invest in their country

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The French government has recently been publicising a new website, The New France. It starts badly. After giving a slogan (‘The New France. Where the smart money goes’) and a choice of four languages, it starts to download a Flash-powered introduction. I have a fast connection, but came very close to pressing the ‘skip intro’ link. The animation is lovely when it arrives, but just not worth the wait. This, as everything else on these sites, reflects directly on the country (‘Ah, the French – they put beauty above practicality’).
After this it all gets much better, though why it has to be entirely driven by Flash software (no alternative provided) is never apparent. The core is a set of interviews with bosses of big overseas investors, asking them why they like France so much. Cleverly, the questions include several that bring up common criticisms and allow the interviewees to shoot them down. Thus the head of Ajinomoto is asked ‘What about French bureaucracy?’ and replies that “The French authorities have demonstrated sustained support”. Questioned on why he isn’t manufacturing in a country with lower overheads, the CEO of Novo Nordisk says that “We can rely on stable production and the highest quality product”. This is a not a web thing particularly, but it must make sense to raise difficult issues, then let someone else rubbish them for you.
This open approach continues with the ‘attractiveness scoreboard,’ which ranks various factors and shows France’s warts as well as its dimples (number one of 10 on high-speed train lines; number nine on flexibility of labour markets). It also links through to the less shiny but more pratique site belonging to the Invest in France agency. This multilingual site is a useful mix of marketing (‘Top seven reasons to invest in France’) and information – here you can read all about the working hour limits, though there is an understandable emphasis on the fact that they aren’t as inflexible as they used to be.

Little local difficulties uncover lack of resources


The UK competes head on with France for inward investment, so it is not surprising that UK Trade & Investment has a substantial site aimed at wooing the dollars and yen. It could hardly be more different– starting well and ending up in all sorts of trouble. The home page has a practical list of 25 countries, with lists to their sites and different language versions within them. Impressive – but also the source of many problems.
Each country site has the same template and is clearly designed to be updated with material locally: an excellent idea when it works. Trouble is, there isn’t that much content and the localisation is often bizarre. Go into any non-English site, and you will find a mix of English and local language content on the same page. The first law of selling to the French is to speak to them in their own language, yet the France site has brief French introductions to stories that are in English. Worse, except for the contacts it is exactly the same as the Belgium site (that breaks the second law).
The site has a space for ‘related links’ down the right-hand side. A sensible idea, yet in too may places there are no links, even where material is available. For example, the aerospace section on the US site does not link to a big Boeing case study I found elsewhere. And the case study talks about a deal to launch the “new 737” – it should be the 7E7.
What is the problem here? A case of grand ambitions not followed up, it seems to me. The inflexible structure of the site demands huge amounts of work and content to keep it looking fine, yet it is receiving neither. It needs either to be rebuilt to require less work or to be given more resources.

Import ideas from all over


What model to follow? I would mix the French attitude to potential criticism with the structure provided by Ireland’s IDA (Industrial Development Authority). This has a flexible format that does not highlight weaknesses. There are, for example, links to several language versions at the top, but only the German and Japanese versions are full translations. Click on the French, Italian or Spanish link, and you will be told that only the Frequently-Asked Questions are available in your language. So no raised expectations, and anyway the FAQs are useful.
I like the way that the IDA tells you simply why you should invest, ranking comparative corporate tax rates, percentages of workforce under 25 and so on, but also provides links to documents with all the detail. This approach – mixing high level stuff for the bosses with nitty-gritty for the people who have to do the job – works well on the web.
Singapore’s Economic Development Board also offers simple rankings to show its strengths, though their basis is not always clear (how do you decide what makes one of ‘the world’s top seven intelligent communities?’). But, like the IDA, it provides plenty of links to greater detail – nothing in languages other than English, though.

Need drives level of effort


What of the US, a huge recipient of inward investment? Well, maybe it does not have to try. I found nothing aimed at foreigners on individual state sites, while FirstGov.gov, The US Government’s Official Web Portal, has a section for foreign business that consists only of poorly-targeted links to other government sites.
Finally, I looked at a country that definitely does have to try: Georgia. Invest in Georgia, run by the Georgian National Export and Investment Promotion Agency, is a fascinatingly honest site of that tells it how it is (or rather used to be): “The first wave of reforms… can be viewed as only partially successful”, with “high levels of corruption, inefficient management”, though now, of course, the government is pursuing a “course of radical and irreversible reforms”.
Convinced? Then go to the privatisation page, which features a picture of a dam with ‘For Sale’ stamped over it, as well as links to a dedicated government site (www.privatization.ge). This is the place to look if you fancy buying a ‘center for children’s aesthetic education’ or ‘the polyclinic of the Tbilisi railway’. Better than ebay.
First published on ft.com 27.01.06

First published 01 February, 2006
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