Is Your Global Brand Cookie Cutter or Couture?

When does a brand make the leap from being an international one to being a truly global one? An international brand is one that has a presence in multiple countries. A global brand has a cohesive and recognizable brand presence that cuts across borders of language and country.

But all too often, marketers believe that in order to build a strong global brand, you have to adhere strictly to the same formula and style guide that works in your domestic market. Ironically, this commonplace desire to “contain” a brand identity, or put too many rules around it, is what prevents a brand from really flourishing into a global one.

Avoid Putting Your Brand in a Straight Jacket

Many marketers create lots of restrictions and rules about what their brand should and shouldn’t be and how it can and cannot sound, thinking they are charting out a flight path for a brand to move into a new country or language. But when it comes to international marketing, mapping things out too narrowly is like loading down your brand’s wings with so many weights that it cannot possibly soar. How can you take advantage of fortuitous tailwinds you encounter along the way, if your path has been predetermined? You’ll end up slowing your company down, asking yourself why it feels so hard.

Local marketing teams need flexibility to adjust their flight path while they are flying and based on the local realities they encounter. Local marketers don’t actually need a “global” preconceived idea of what their flight path will be, at least not as much as you might think they do. What they need from you is a target destination and approximate arrival window, and the tools and training to fly the plane. But trust them to be competent pilots. Support them via air traffic control. But don’t micro-manage a local marketer’s approach to their market, especially one that you don’t fully understand. Let them fly!

People are not the same in every country, culture, and language. Too many marketers expect customers in different markets to want the same things, value the exact same attributes of your product, or behave in the same ways as they do in your home market.

Most marketers recognize the value of personas and understanding the different demographics of their buyers within their home market. What is astounding is how many don’t see that when you move into another country, the personas are not the same, the motivations are not the same, and you need to approach each market with open eyes and a clean slate.

You Can’t Fully Control How Your Brand is Perceived Locally

Most marketers seek to get their brand across borders in a way that means they can fully recognize it on the other side. The problem is that many of them expect their brand to be nearly identical in every country and language. Sorry marketing friends, but that’s not going to happen! Here’s why.

You don’t own your brand, at least, not exclusively. You control only one side of it, the part that you create and the associated attributes that you hope to convey. How your messages are received depends not only on you, but on your target audience. Their context. Their reality. What is happening in their lives at any given time. This is a well-known fact that many marketers forget about when actually sitting in the marketing driver’s seat (even if you studied it in school!) You own your brand identity creation, but brand perception is not yours to own. Your customers own their own perception of your brand.

As such, your customers will tend to be very different in each local market. In some countries, you might be perceived as the low-cost option while in others you’re the highest-cost competitor. In some markets, you might be known for one thing, while in others, quite another. Sure, you can have a consistent brand identity in many aspects. But you won’t be able to create clones of your home market brand identity in every country around the world. At least, not if you want to be successful globally.

To build a truly global brand, you’ll have to let go of the “control and command” mentality and open yourself up to building a set of diverse relationships with local customer groups around the globe. And like with any good relationship, you’ll need to work hard to understand how you’re being perceived, and whether or not it’s the way you intended!

A Helpful Analogy for Nailing Your Global Brand Evolution

If you work at a company with a presence in many countries, chances are you will struggle to convey the subtle difference between international and global branding. Here’s a quick analogy to help highlight the contrast. When you try to create your brand using a mold or a template that you “copy and paste” into other countries or languages, it’s a very cookie cutter approach. As great as you might think it was for your home market, when it gets to another market, it’s very… blah. Boring. Doesn’t feel very custom or bespoke. Local markets find it pretty generic. Does. Not. Resonate!

Consider some button-down shirts produced on a factory assembly line, using the same cuts and fabrics and buttons, but only offered in slightly different colors. That’s what many marketers do when they try to cross borders. “I love this brand, but I want it in navy instead of black!” Too prescriptive, and actually too “samey.” Sure, the brand can be spotted easily, but it also doesn’t feel “adapted” or authentic enough to account for what are very real differences in local preferences. This is often what happens when marketers say, “I want this brand messaging, but I’ll take it in German and Spanish instead of English!” It isn’t just about English. That’s only one aspect of the people you created this messaging for. They are not defined by their language alone, so why would simply translating the messaging be sufficient?

So, instead of the cookie cutter shirts you can buy off the shelf in different colors, imagine your global brand as a couture designer runway show, in which the models all walk down the runway at the end of the show but in a way that feels connected visually while allowing for interesting differences and variations. You can easily tell it’s the same designer, because each creation reflects many common and cohesive elements. The designer’s signature stamp is easy to identify. The outfits have been tailored to the models wearing them. No one expects them to hang the same way on different models but rather, accepts that adjustments will need to be made. It’s a combination of art (this collar looks better against this skin tone) as well as science (take this hem out by two inches).

I believe it’s at the point in which marketers stop trying to put their brand through an assembly line approach, and open themselves up to the reality that each local market is different, that they rise to the level of “couture” (figuratively) where a global brand is concerned.

Local markets have different needs, and adjustments need to be made. Allow for that from the very start! You can still convey a consistent and cohesive image with your brand globally while allowing for local market adaptations.

Nataly Kelly

Nataly Kelly is an award-winning global marketing executive and cross-functional leader in B2B SaaS, with experience at both startups and large public companies. The author of three books, her latest is "Take Your Company Global" (Berrett-Koehler). She writes for Harvard Business Review on topics of international marketing and global business. Nataly is based in New England, having lived in Quito (Ecuador), Donegal (Ireland) and the rural Midwest where she grew up.

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