Let me describe for you what global branding often looks like in US companies. The self-assured marketing team typically develops a brand strategy that is unconsciously steeped in the culture that prevails at headquarters. The well-meaning team makes decisions and assumptions about what people value, how they behave, what their history is, what they may find compelling, all the while not realizing that they are silently defining “people” as “Americans.” Once the team at headquarters feels the brand is properly characterized, guidelines, story lines, talking points and imagery are developed to facilitate communication of the brand identity and strategy to staff and consumers. Downstream content and assets are translated into other with the intention of bring teams from diverse geographies into the fold. After translation, headquarters might reach out to local market colleagues and ask them to review the translations. But not even that level of engagement with international colleagues is a sure thing. The bottom line is that, as with most areas of business, branding teams approach globalization as an after-thought that can be addressed through translation once the company vision is set – from headquarters.
At its core this approach makes a rather righteous assumption about the global dominance of US business and consumer culture. Everyone loves America, after all, right? It’s easy to think that people all over the world are so used to “buying” American culture that no additional efforts to connect need to be undertaken. This is reinforced by the fact sometimes it is, in fact, the very Americanness of the brand that people are buying. According to the Wall Street Journal, Cadillac sales are up 23% globally this year (through July 2017), with year-to-date sales in China jumping 69% relative to the same 7-month period in 2016. Why? A Shanghainese Cadillac owner indicated that his car sets him apart and “represents American heritage.” You see the ubiquity of American culture among the cosmopolitan elite in Europe in daily conversation where, whether you are speaking Spanish, French or German, the word “cool” has become cool.
Given the dominance of the United States in the global economy since WWII, complacency is an easy trap to fall into. It’s easy to think that if you are selling internationally and increasing your sales year-over-year, the current approach must be working just fine. But this sort of thinking dramatically over simplified the issue. Just because a company is growing internationally doesn’t mean it could not be growing much more quickly internationally or that the growth might not be longer-lasting if more nuanced global strategic thinking were applied. Implicit in this over-simplification is the idea, made famous in the film Field of Dreams, that if we just “build it” then naturally “they will come.” However, this reeks of American over-confidence.
In their defense, I don’t think that branding professionals are consciously putting on airs. The lack of vision results from lack of experience in global settings. Living in a large and diverse country like the United States, it’s easy to live in a bubble. Even when Americans put on their explorer hats and plan vacation adventures designed to broaden our horizons, we tend to focus on relatively less-expensive domestic travel. Why visit Orleans when you have New Orleans in your backyard? OK, maybe a bad example – New Orleans is pretty objectively awesome regardless of how you look at it – but you see my point. And in a country where work is king, paid time off is scarce, and only 36% of citizen have valid passports, one can understand how Americans end up having fewer international experiences. Americans live in a massive cultural silo so it is logical that our approach to branding would have similar dimensions, or lack thereof.
Nonetheless, developing a global brand strategy while living in self-imposed cultural isolation is problematic. When the approach to global branding becomes mono-cultural, it is more difficult to apply in new markets. In not leveraging ground-floor observations from a variety of cultures to assemble an inclusive and authentic brand vision, the approach reinforces a wide-spread skepticism and resentment of American cultural arrogance. It plays into the common view that American companies are brute force neoimperialists, self-aggrandizing egomaniac, or “my way or the highway” managers who could care less how the rest of the world functions. Developing a cohesive global brand is difficult in the best of circumstances. This sort of monolithic thinking does little to set the company up for success. On the contrary, it alienates those who are best positioned to help the company to be successful.
Why does it matter?
Modern business is global by definition. Being global it is not an optional marketing strategy that can be employed down the road once domestic growth has tapped out. According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development’s 2017 World Investment Report, over the past 25 years the top 100 multinational enterprises (MNEs) have seen the majority of their sales, assets and employees shift to foreign markets. The shift is even more dramatic when you look only at companies from the digital economy, which has traditionally formed the backbone of the globalization industry. Why does this matter? Well, first off, no global business is going to be successful unless its employees understand and value the brand. If most of your employees do not reside within the headquarters culture, extra effort is required to ensure that the work of foreign employees will support and strengthen the brand. And if most of your customers are foreign, your brand strategy needs to be broad enough to include a range of cultural realities.
Tips for building globally-enabled brands
- Explore your own cultural biases: The number one thing you can do to improve your global brand is to start by examining your own cultural baggage. To connect with people and ideas that are outside our cultural frame of reference, we first need to be break free from the assumptions we make, day in and day out, without even realizing we are doing so. A great way to break biases is to engage in cross-cultural communications training (hint, hint – yes, Idiosynch offers this). Even something as simple as attempting to learn a new language forces us to move outside of our rote thinking. If taking a class is not feasible, we can extend culturally by simple acts in everyday life. Take a moment to talk with someone from a different culture, whether they are your doctor, your grocery bagger or the barista at your local café. Exploring the world begins with exploring people and if we are willing to open our eyes, there are a surprising number of opportunities to grow our cultural knowledge in our local communities. Often it is not hard to see our own biases once we have a little perspective. Getting perspective, however, requires conscious effort and a commitment to honest and humble self-examination.
- Open your ears to global voices: You would be surprised how much global experience exists on even small domestic teams. Because we are so used to thinking and acting from within our bubbles we rarely ask ourselves and our colleagues about the experiences that have forced us to question our cultural assumptions. One need not have travelled the world to have had such experiences. We have them every day with our neighbors and friends. Sharing our diverse experiences primes our ability to think outside of our own bubble. If your organization is already global, a powerful approach is to engage with local champions from a variety of disciplines in the company. By including diverse voices, we can learn to understand and codify brand identity in ways that drill down to the core message, retaining a common cultural denominator that does not preclude any single culture from participating.
- Universal but flexible: Brands cannot be infinitely malleable. After all, each company needs a level of brand consistency across all markets. That said, the Apples of the world, with their one-size-fits-all approach, are rare and exceedingly difficult to create. With global branding we want to develop a core universal brand identity, a basic set of values and emotional connections we hope to make in all markets, while retaining enough flexibility to adapt to local cultural realities. Let’s think about brand in terms of storytelling. The global brand can be quite specific about how it defines the “moral of the story,” or, simply put, the brand message. The moral of the story is what matters and needs to be conveyed in every market. By communicating the moral without prescribing the characters, plot, setting, etc, we can empower local teams to tell a wider range of stories, tailored to local cultural realities.
- Customization guidelines: A strong global branding strategy that will require adaptation by region or market. But allowing local teams to adapt brand identity willy-nilly is a surefire way to lose control. Through communication and coordination with local-market teams and by making use of cultural consultants to provide heuristic analysis, a branding team can develop market-specific guidelines (linguistic, visual, value mapping, etc.) that allow local market teams to bring their superior cultural knowledge to bear while ensuring an adequate level of control and transparency for headquarters.
- Authenticity and values: Brands are striving for authenticity and emotional connections with consumers. But to be authentic, you need to know what authenticity looks like in other cultures. To build a brand identity without viewing it through diverse lenses of cultural authenticity is naïve at best and potentially devastating. Not knowing what cultural myths one is conjuring, what history one is evoking, what references to art or pop culture one is unwittingly making, is the surest way to alienate consumers. For not only does the brand miss an opportunity to connect; it is damaging its chances of ever connecting. Americans are less accustomed to this dynamic because many of the most powerful brands are in fact American. But ill-conceived branding is common in other markets. Both the American perpetrators and the local recipients tend to laugh off these branding faux pas, but at the end of the day, the brand that fails to demonstrate authenticity in culturally specific ways is bound to be perceived as out of touch or worse, disrespectful.
- Brand is culture: Culture, ideology, history and politics inform and affect the way we build brands, how we perceive brand meaning and what values are ultimately targeted. With the emergence of earned content (user-generated content) as a key conduit for demonstrating authenticity, the dance between culture and brand is now happening in real time and it can be difficult to tell who is leading and who is following. Brand is understood and experienced by consumers through their cultural lens. But culture itself can be observed and understood through brand as consumers assert their voice and equal role in the dance. We are emerging into an era where brand strength can arguably be judged by the degree to which it is effective in pushing the culture needle, playing a role in culture very evolve.
- Feedback loops and brand integrity: Once an authentic, adaptable brand globalization strategy has been developed, with all the incumbent research and guideline development, you might think the journey is complete, at least until the brand wants to take a new direction. But brand has a funny way of taking on a life of its own. You will need a strategy for monitoring the brand in every market. It is necessary to build expectations and processes that allow the brand team at headquarters to understand how the brand is being expressed in foreign cultures. It is here where many global brands fail. It’s tempting to do the hard work initially and then simply abandon the local manifestations of your brand to the winds of change (or if you are unlucky, to the storms of controversy). In developing a long-term brand audit plan, headquarters can ensure cohesion and consistency across markets and over time, while also mining the experiences in each market for nuggets of wisdom that may work in other markets as well.