How to Build a Strong Local Brand

In the digital age, as more and more and more interactions take place virtually and online, companies are realizing how important it is to have a strong brand, and how important it is to make an authentic connection with each customer and prospect. Brand trust is critical. And as online channels multiply, it’s getting harder and harder to achieve consistency in brand voice from one channel to another to another. That’s if you’re just in one market.

Many Markets, Multiple Brand Voices

Now let’s assume you’re a global company, and you need to create a strong brand in many local markets at once. This is where it can get even more overwhelming. When thinking about how to face this challenge for your business, it’s important to remember a key principle:

Your brand is how you’re perceived. Not how you want to be perceived.

And that’s going to change from place to place.

The job of marketers, of course, is to help shape those perceptions. Companies that are good at this aim for a consistent plan, to repeat and reinforce key values they want associated with their brand. Even if they can’t control brand perception, they can influence it.

Over time, these reinforced messages should build up, like a snowball rolling down a hill, gaining traction and speed, with momentum that helps clear the path for salespeople to engage with customers who have already formed an opinion, hopefully a positive one that assists or accelerates the sale, based on what they know of the brand.

But the verb “branding” is very misleading. It conveys that you are in control. You’re not actually in full control of your brand, especially not in the digital age, because your customers have many more channels and ways to engage with your business. That alone is hard to manage. But especially when you add in the complexity of doing it across many markets at once. You have influence, but not full control.

You can seek to shape opinions that people have about your brand. But ultimately only the individuals you’re selling to can make the decision about what your company means to them. And they will do this over the course of many interactions, many touchpoints, many conversations with and about your company.

Brands Evolve As They Travel

Raised in the Midwest in the 1980s, my basic perception of the restaurant chain McDonald’s growing up as a kid was that it was something new, fun, and innovative. It was convenient, and accessible to most people in the US back then. At that time, some kids even had birthday parties there instead of at home. It was viewed as something popular, fun, convenient — although perhaps a bit wasteful, for people like the average family, who were used to just cooking at home at a fraction of the price and doing dishes instead of throwing the leftovers and packaging in a big happy-looking trash bin.

As I grew older and when to college, the McDonald’s brand became less appealing for many people of my generation. It took on more negative attributes in my home country of the United States, as people became critical of its practices and the nutritional value of its menu. Documentaries were made, articles were written, and consumer awareness grew about childhood obesity and risks, placing the entire brand at the center of much controversy. As the brand traveled through time, it moved from something popular and entertaining for kids, to something far less positive among a large segment of the same population, and not something most parents wanted to give their kids often anymore.

But time isn’t the only thing that can change how a brand is perceived. When I first moved to Ecuador, I would find out firsthand how much a brand can change when it travels across geographic borders. Living in Quito in my late teens, I befriended some Americans, and they invited me to go with them to McDonald’s one day. To be honest, I didn’t want to. I preferred to support local Ecuadorian businesses while living there. I didn’t want to give a portion of my student stipend to a multinational that back home was not doing enough, in my opinion, to help stem an epidemic of childhood obesity. I’m also vegetarian, and this was before the chain had any veggie main offerings. Even so, my friends convinced me to join them.

When I set foot inside, the first thing I noticed was the colors, the packaging, the uniforms. Everything looked the same, down to the ketchup packets and napkin size. Nice consistent “branding,” right? It felt familiar to me. At first glance, it resembled the McDonald’s brand I knew as a kid. And suddenly I understood why my American friends wanted to be there, because it was a welcome sense of familiarity, for a bunch of young adults living very far away from home. (It was hard back then to feel connected to home, because mobile phones were not yet really a common thing, and the Internet was really new.)

The second thing I noticed was the pricing. I did the conversion from Ecuadorian Sucres to American Dollars, and quickly realized that they were charging Ecuadorians a fortune! I could buy 10 lunches from my mom and pop cafe across the street from where I lived for just one lunch at McDonald’s in Ecuador. The cost of labor couldn’t be high enough to justify that. While it was far less money than it would have cost in the US, it was outrageous given the much lower wages and cost of living. It made me wonder why the costs were so inflated there compared to the US market.

The third thing I noticed was the customers. The Ecuadorians, very much unlike me, were dressed up to go to McDonald’s. There were occasionally smaller kids who came in with young families, but not as many as you would see in the United States. Most of the girls were young people in their 20s and 30s, who were like me, but also didn’t look like me or my American friends at all — they were in full make-up, nicely dressed, carrying good handbags, and so on. They were there not just to dine, but to be seen dining there. If you had enough money, it meant you could afford to go to McDonald’s whenever you wanted, but that put you in a different class of society. Most Ecuadorians simply could not afford to go there very often, if ever. I had to ask myself, “Is it actually a status symbol to eat American fast food, in this country?” It struck me as strange, because it wasn’t like this at home. My friends and I, the casually dressed Americans, stood out like a sore thumb in a restaurant we thought we knew.

This was my first realization that most everything I thought I knew about the McDonald’s brand just did not ring true in Ecuador. The colors, the packaging, and classic “branding elements” for the company might have been the same. But the essence of the relationship was totally different. The connotations the brand had with customers in that market were completely different to what they were back home, in their original market.

And I learned it wasn’t just McDonald’s that had a shape-shifting brand when moving across borders. My American friends over time took me to other American chains that had a presence in Ecuador. But every time, I noticed the same thing. The perception I had of most of these brands, which were mostly a “cheap” fast food experience in my home country, was simply not equally valid in Ecuador. These brands transformed in a new market. They were embraced from what I could tell, not by young families out and about with busy kids, but instead by mostly young, upper-class working professionals in Ecuador who liked to be seen eating at a trendy American fast food chain.

The packaging and brand identity the company wanted to convey was the same.

The product offering was largely the same.

But the local perception of the brand was totally different.

Why? Because the country was different, the economy was different, and most importantly of all the customers were different.

There was no way a company like McDonald’s could keep the same brand identity in a new market if it wished to leverage all of the assets it had already invested in within its home market. Sure, it could attempt to lower the cost of labor even further, but in that type of economy, how could McDonald’s ever compete with the mom and pop cafe across the street from me offering a three-course lunch for $1? It wouldn’t be able to do that while retaining its core assets, its flashy red and yellow packaging, its decor and such, when the mom and pop shop could pay someone a fraction of those costs to simply wash and re-use dishes again and again, and could care less about what the interior looked like.

The Basics of Building a Strong Local Brand

So, how do you build a strong local brand?

One relationship at a time.

But before you can build those relationships, you first have to realize that you can’t leverage much of your past relationships elsewhere, because those are relationships with a completely different group of people. You have to start anew, on many levels.

It’s like when you move your family to a new community. You can’t just assume people know who you are and what you’re all about. You have to meet them where they are, and tell them, but you can’t just run in shouting it from your rooftop. It takes time to get to know a new community, and even more time to be known in a new community. It happens one interaction, one relationship at a time. The same is true in business! Are you expecting to “be known” in a community before you’ve taken the time to really get to know it yourself, and learn what’s unique and special about it?

That’s what many companies do with local branding.

Time and time again, when I’ve consulted with companies over the years, they *think* they know what their brand is in local markets, but they really don’t because they haven’t asked.

Building a strong local brand doesn’t just mean building a brand that is known.

It requires building a local brand that is known for something.

What you’re known for in your home market may not be the same thing you’ll be known for in others.

The problem is, many companies tend to forget how much energy and effort they have devoted in their home market to build relationships with customers, brand awareness, and overall trust in their company, because they spent many years building it. They forget all the layers of investment and work they put in over the years, and the fact that all of these build on top of each other and add up. They enter new markets rather impatiently, assuming they’ll see the same traction in a new market as in their “old” one where their brand is simply better known, more mature, and they’ve built up more relationships over the time they’ve been in that market.

Depending on what industry you’re in and how you market your products and services, you might see a small amount of “halo effect” in other markets. But building good relationships takes time, in both life and in business. You cannot lunge into a market and expect that you’ll have much leverage with your brand there. Instead, assume the opposite. The reality is that you’re likely to have more leverage in local markets with other aspects of your company than you are with your brand. Your sales approach might scale globally. Perhaps your core product offering will too. But your brand, how your company is perceived — that’s really at the heart of everything, and is the precursor for every effort your company makes in a local market. It’s a foundational piece to entering a local market that you simply cannot afford to ignore, lest you build everything that follows (sales, customer service, and so on) on top of the shaky blocks of a weak and unestablished brand.

The easiest way to fix it?

Talk to your customers in local markets, with a default assumption that you don’t know what you don’t know. Be curious and open-minded. Find out how they perceive your company differently today, and where they see the value in what you have to offer. Ask the questions, listen, and don’t assume you know anything going into it, because your assumptions will likely be challenged.

Local branding requires a high degree of cultural humility, an open mind, and plenty of patience. Many companies have an unrealistic assumption of, “We’re succeeding in our home country! How fast can we take this global?” versus an open, more appropriate attitude of, “What will it take to succeed locally? And how is it different from what we’ve done in the past?”

Building a strong local brand takes realizing that you don’t get to decide what it takes to succeed in a new market. Your local customers do. So make sure you’re asking them these vitally important questions. You’ll be amazed at the great advice they’ll give, if only you are willing to ask.

Nataly Kelly

Nataly leads localization at HubSpot and has previously held diverse roles in marketing, international operations and strategy, research, and product development. Her latest book is "Found in Translation" (Penguin). She writes for Harvard Business Review on topics of international marketing and global business. Nataly works remotely from New England, having lived in Quito (Ecuador), Donegal (Ireland) and the rural Midwest where she grew up.

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