The world is flat — or at least that’s what conventional wisdom says. But in emerging markets, there is only so much truth in the idea that we have entered the era of a “flat” global marketplace. While consumers in some developing countries may have more spending power than ever before, there also remain important differences between those consumers, and the submarkets they populate.

“It’s very difficult to establish a general rule [regarding consumers in these markets] when you are working with a global company,” according to Augusto Garzon, a Latin America-based Managing Director with Unilever. “The reality is that some consumer preferences are more globalized than others. You can be global in certain brands, or in certain categories. But in some categories — the way that consumers approach food products, for instance — preferences are quite [specific].”

The idea that the world actually is not flat was just one of the ideas explored by a panel of experts on Latin American business during “All Eyes on Latin America,” the 2012 Wharton Latin America Conference, which took place recently in Philadelphia. During the panel discussion, five experts — Garzon, Joel Muniz of the Boston Consulting Group, Juan Carlos Lombera of Colgate-Palmolive, Andre Barbieri of Itaú Unibancoand Nick Handrinos of Deloitte– spoke about the increasing spending power of the Latin American consumer, the rapid spread of credit throughout the region and, in a lengthy discussion that kicked off the panel, the challenge of striking a balance between the organizational demands of a “global” business strategy and the undeniable reality that consumers in some regions and some nations simply don’t act, or buy, the same as others do.

No Such Thing as ‘Brazil’

It’s a balance that can be especially difficult to strike in Latin America, where market-specific demands are compounded by still-uncertain economic conditions, a nascent banking infrastructure and even a lingering distrust of the global corporate establishment. In short, the panelists agreed, just as there is no one global market, there is no one Latin American market. “There is no such thing as ‘Latin America,’” said Handrinos, “and there is no such thing as ‘Brazil.’”

“We think globally, but we execute locally,” added Muniz, who leads BCG’s consumer practice for Latin America and marketing sales & pricing for Mexico. “What’s important is that you make sure when you execute at the local level that you are customizing the right way, for the right customer. When you travel around today you can find [dynamics] that cut across major cities, and then there are things that are specific to just Latin America, or just the middle class.”

As Muniz pointed out, some cultures simply approach cuisine — and cooking — in very different ways. While “fast” foods are popular in America and some areas of Western Europe, for instance, Latin Americans are more likely to view the act of cooking — and cooking slow — as a loving gesture toward their family and loved ones. The companies that have succeeded in the region, as a result, have taken this tendency into account, delivering food products that feed directly into that cultural peculiarity.

“It’s very important to understand those differences if you’re going to understand your global needs,” he said. “It requires a strong understanding of your local markets.”

A more specific example can be found in bread loaves. Though it might be easy to assume that bread is bread, and that the same loaves delivered to one nation could also be marketed to another country, the reality is that there is great diversity in what certain customer segments even within certain nations demand from their bread. Muniz notes that successful bakeries in Latin America deliver a different kind of bread in Mexico than they would in Argentina. The market simply demands it.

“The consumption patterns are completely different,” he said. “So sometimes, from an R&D perspective and a branding perspective, it simply doesn’t make sense to have ‘one strategy.’ What we’ve seen is that companies need to very clearly define when and where they need to embrace complexity, and also recognize when they can embrace scale and go global.”

Flexing Financial Muscle

The idea of “scale,” the panel predicted, will likely be especially important going forward. And the reason is quite simple: The population Latin America is growing at a remarkable rate — and along with that population growth will come greatly expanded spending power. Some experts project that the Latin American middle class will more than double by the year 2020. In other words, a massive new market is emerging in these Latin American economies — and thanks to the increasing availability of credit in the region, Latin American consumers find themselves placed in a better position to flex their financial muscle. It’s a hugely important shift that companies must be aware of — and attempt to exploit, the panelists said.

“We’re seeing a shift of the population from the lower class up to the middle class,” Barbieri said. “In the past six years, about 67 million people in Brazil moved up in class. That’s a group of people the same size at Italy…. And credit has been one of the major drivers of consumer growth there.”

Muniz noted that in Brazil, especially, it is incredibly easy to get credit –provided one is willing to deal with the high interest rates that accompany that credit. (Credit card rates can range as high as 150%.) It’s clear, however, that most Brazilians are unfazed by those rates: The economy’s enduring growth even in the face of the high cost of borrowing is proof of that.

“You can walk into any store in Brazil, and in 30 minutes you can have a credit line at almost any large or medium retailer,” Barbieri said. “They are just giving credit away. And so we are seeing a big increase in their purchasing power. It starts a real snowball effect.”

The rise of Brazil’s credit class is hardly an isolated phenomenon in the region. Throughout Latin America, the panel agreed, huge swaths of populations — including many from the rural countryside — are gaining access not only to credit but also formalized banking services for the first time. In Mexico, for instance, a stunning 40% of the population remains unbanked; but that percentage is likely to shrink, and shrink significantly, as both banks and non-traditional financial institutions attempt to break into a previously untapped marketplace.

Such is the draw of this mammoth marketplace that even U.S. retail giant Wal-Mart is making a bid to win over the unbanked masses. The company just won a banking license in Mexico. This is the first time the company has branched out into financial services.

“The question for these companies is, ‘How do I attract this unbanked population that is scared to walk into a bank, but may not be scared to walk into a retail location?” Muniz said. “It’s about trying to use different models to [access] this population…. The challenge is how to reach them. These people are not in the urban centers — a lot of them are far outside of urban centers. The cost of serving them is a lot higher, which is why you have interest rates of 70% and 80%, which seems really outrageous until you see the cost of actually collecting.”

Deeper Problems

While there is indeed a large, untapped market in Latin America, servingthat market is more complicated than one might assume, the panelists agreed. They were quick to point out that the challenges of capitalizing on growth in the region extend far beyond just the market-specific consumer preferences found in each. These markets, while potentially hugely profitable, are still developing in most every way, and while it is true that they are more stable than they have been in the past, some political obstacles remain.

Handrinos, for instance, pointed to the case of Chlie, a nation that is experiencing unprecedented growth and economic expansion. It would seem, on the surface, to be an ideal place to do business. But once one digs a bit deeper, some tricky issues are easily uncovered.

“In Chile, growth is looking good, and general sentiment is high,” Handrinos said. “But at the same time, there is exponential growth in the lack of trust toward corporations and government as well. There is some idea that government is far too lenient on business and perhaps some of the environmental damage going on. I think this is a huge issue.”