Gauge your global branding approach in four questions

Gone are the days when a brand could emerge in a domestic market and then, when the conditions were just right, launch strategically in new markets with tight control over brand identity and a limited number of communication channels to manage. Nowadays, brands are launching into a global engagement with customer perception from day one, whether you are ready for it or not.

Gone are the days when a brand could emerge in a domestic market and then, when the conditions were just right, launch strategically in new markets with tight control over brand identity and a limited number of communication channels to manage. Nowadays, brands are launching into a global engagement with customer perception from day one, whether you are ready for it or not. The very idea of “globalization” is passé. No brand has the luxury of starting from a place of isolation and then choosing when and how it will be perceived in the global marketplace. The real question is whether you are willing to face up to a globalized reality or not. Burying your head in the sand won’t change the fact that social media is going to take your brand to places you never expected, good and bad.

Even from a product perspective, black markets will launch your presence even if you are not selling directly into the market. I recall the story of a video game developer that decided to use an Islamic chant for background music in a fighting game. Concern was muted because the game was not officially available in any predominantly Muslim markets. I’m sure you can guess the outcome. The black market ensured distribution of the game everywhere and the backlash was a PR nightmare.

The moral of the story? The global market is going to judge your products and brand from the moment you step foot on the stage. Infusing your brand guidelines with global smarts give you a fighting chance of shaping perceptions. Below are four question you can ask yourself to gauge your brand’s global readiness.

Does your brand identity assume culturally biased frames of reference?

I once worked with a brand that used a “buy local” vibe to entice American consumers. What they really meant was, “we believe our customers are Americans who feel less guilty about their hyper-consumerism when they buy locally produced goods and we want them to associate our brand with that sort of self-placating buying.” Tongue and cheek aside, this is not an inherently weak marketing approach for the US market. However, “buy local” is far from being a globally recognized consumer value. Even if it were a value across markets, the supply chain challenge of souring all or most of a product line locally in each market is unrealistic at best, laughable at worst. My point is that to evaluate your brand identity objectively, you must first step outside the implicit cultural frames that limit perspective. Transactional values are often specific to the cultural frame from which they are spawed. Looking more closely at the transactional dimensions you may find a deeper set of values that could resonate globally. In the “buy local” case, you might look toward environmental stewardship or honoring craftsmanship, either of which would have a greater likelihood of surviving the transposition to a new cultural frame.

Do your brand guidelines include typography standards that encompass global language variation? 

This is by far the most common deficiency I see among global brands. Page after page of brand guidelines specify in excruciating detail which fonts to use, how much white space is acceptable, what to capitalize and when to use punctuation – in English only! They almost never address similar and often more complex typographic issues as they relate to content created in or translated into other languages. Let’s start with font. Most experts would easily agree that selection of fonts and consistent use of these font are key to consistent branding. Yet, when the team requests translation of branded content, the decision of what font to use in non-Latin language is often left to a desktop publishing specialist at the translation agency with her only guidance being “make it look similar.” Successful global brands, like Coca-Cola, address this issue head-on by spending time and energy ensuring that in each writing system there are clear standards for usage.

Coca-cola multilingual logos

But the problem of global brand typography goes beyond logos. Translation often introduced typographic issues that simply do not exist when a single language is targeted. For example, translation results in text expansion for most language. What previously fit on a single line now may roll over into an additional line of text. This means you may need to reduce the font size of the target language content to ensure that a header or a slogan fits on a single line. In designs that leave very little room for text expansion the necessary reduction in font size may lead to nearly illegible copy, especially if the target is a language, such as Chinese, whose writing system may contain complex and dense characters. Do your guidelines contain lists of fonts that are approved for each language along with minimum and maximum standard for font size, kerning, tracking, leading, etc.?

Have you developed language-specific brand messaging guidelines?

Most companies, even the gargantuan multinationals, would struggle to manage all multilingual content development in-house. This means you need partners. This might be a language service providers (LSP) that is directly contracted by headquarters to translate content into all required languages. Often it means sending over a few basic brand guidelines – in English – to local market subsidiaries or franchisees and expecting them (or their local translation firm) to publish local language content that maps to the English content. In either case, there are basic steps you can take to maximize the likelihood that your messaging will stay true to your vision in every language.

First, make sure you know what concept is at the root of each of your key messages. It can be tempting to jump straight to a clever brand message, a smart turn of phrase, and assume that the underlying concept has been explicitly conveyed. If you engage with partners, sharing both conceptual thinking and the scaffolding you have developed for English language messaging, you can convene the local language stakeholders (whether in-house or external partners) to discuss the translatability of the concepts themselves and brainstorm ideas for conveying the messages in culturally authentic ways. Through dialogue and perhaps with some annotated back translations of draft messaging, you can find concepts that work across many cultures and languages and determine what specific wording elicits the emotional or cognitive response you want. Document these key phrases, along with the associated cloud of terminology that a translator or local content creator will need to work independently in adapting your branded content for their market. This will set clearer expectations and arm your partners and local teams with tools to support independent success. When you are ready to go one step further, you can really want to set your teams and partners up for success by translating the entire set of brand guidelines and create an adapted playbook for each of your target market. 

What is your cadence for engaging with your in-market teams and partners?

Let’s assume for now that you have taken some of the proactive steps I’m outlined above. What happens next? It’s easy to get bogged down with day-to-day work life, extinguishing fires and bringing new campaigns to market. How are you going to know what is actually happening in your foreign markets? Unfortunately, this question often goes unanswered. I recommend two strategies to improve accountability and deliver better feedback.

First, schedule regular phone calls with your key stakeholders to talk about the brand guidelines. Not only will the conversation tell you how well your people have internalized the guidelines, but it will also open the door to your partners providing you with new observations and cultural insights that will help both the global brand strategy and the local adaptations of the strategy to evolve and respond to changing conditions.

Second, work with a third party to perform regular audits of branded content. Require your in-market partners to track all branded content and deliver it to you on a regular cadence. Your third party auditor can work with you to create a budget-friendly plan to spot check content, especially items that are locally created (not translated) to deliver insights regarding compliance and quality. By cross-referencing the audit results with data on the performance of various branding efforts you open the door to understanding what aspects or local culture support your brand identity. You may find that in several markets similar angles are successful and choose to bring these observations back to your ground-level brand identity planning.

Get started with a brand global-readiness audit!

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