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Cross border branding: How we speak to European audiences through design

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

When your business operates across national boundaries, some ideas…don’t translate well.

Whether it’s the Vauxhall Nova - the name means “won’t go” in Spanish - or the Pepsi slogan that translates as “will bring your ancestors back from the dead” in Chinese, it’s all too easy for a brand’s message to misfire in another language.

These confusions are literal translator’s errors, but there’s a more subtle danger lying in wait. Failure to apprehend the nuances of your brand’starget culture can seriously damage a your  standing in the country it’s trying to reach. Accurately grasping those nuances, meanwhile, is what makes a brand’s message connect.

We can’t rely on happy accidents - like ‘Kit Kat’ being an abbreviation for “you will surely win” in Japanese - so here’s how we ensure our clients succeed in new and culturally different markets.

Step 1 - Research and resight

We’ve talked about resight before - it means revisiting the market research you’ve already done. This saves time and money, which you can then allocate to something more useful, like investigating the differences between your current and target market.

Brands pull in a great deal of insight for previous marketing campaigns, and the majority of that will be reusable in some capacity. At the very least, it will provide a jumping-off point; you’ll have evidence for what worked before, and can specifically investigate what might stop the same approach working in another market.

Step 2 - Organic ideation

Our organic ideation process brings the key stakeholders on board as early as possible, engaging them in creating something that’s consistent and powerful. Design, copywriting and production are aligned throughout a process which maintains a steady pace and refines that coherent core vision.

The emphasis shifts depending on the client. With Kellogg’s, we worked on meeting the client at the right point in store; we redesigned their packaging to re-present their heritage brands for a millennial market that buys more snacks than cereal. The rest of the process was led by the packaging; everything followed the route the packaging established.

With Scholl, meanwhile, we emphasised brand unity. A new Masterbrand strategy combined heritage elements, visual identity and an effective navigation system to transform a sprawling range of products into the category, with Scholl as category leader.

For an international project our focus would be on soft power - co-operating with the local markets, constructing a scenario in which they choose to use your product rather than have it forced on them.

While elements like language and cultural references are important, as the mistakes we discussed at the start indicate, the starting point is tone of voice. Get that right - focused on the consumer and how they want to be addressed - and the rest becomes a matter of detail and honing.

Step 3 - Design

Great design transcends borders. The classic Americana of Levi’s wears well in China; the Japanese simplicity and elegance of Mujiis warmly received in Europe.

Often, though, an outsider’s view on a culture gives vital insight into how and why things work so well. US-born Bill Bryson made his name with Notes from a Small Island - his book on the experience of immigrating to the UK in the 1970s, written as he was about to return home in the 1990s. Now he’s a stranger everywhere - including in his own country, as Notes from a Big Country more than demonstrates - and that perspective is the secret of his success.

The same is true of branding. Ibis Style hotels work because they don’t feel like they’re part of a chain. The Ibis design approach identifies what local colour looks like at every Style location, and builds that aesthetic into the decor, the layout and even the menu. They’re more local than local, and it shows.

Burberry, meanwhile, performs so well in China because it brings local voices (such as WeChat blogger ‘Mr Bags’) on board, and pitches specific products to specific local audiences - like the DK88 leather handbag, aimed at a young, affluent Chinese millennial demographic. The success of its ‘one label’ rebrand shows that the “outsider looking in” perspective has some brand narrative benefits in its own right, successfully trading on Burberry’s British origins.

Design as a whole can make the same play. At the 2017 Innovation Summit in Berlin, design leaders came together and asked if Europe was lagging behind in the innovation game. Reasons why came thick and fast - a history of underspending and underthinking, a stronger “fear of failure” than in the US or UK, a tendency for talent to remain in universities rather than starting a business.

The lesson? European brands can win out if they invest in an agile, thoughtful design process, moving fast and aiming high, without giving up their cultural commitment to getting things right.

Brand success demands a strategy that covers the total package. We’re designers, but to ensure success for our clients we need a process and philosophy of brand building and innovation, with design at the heart. This includes ToV, packaging, purpose and meaning - as well as the elusive nuances of culture and opportunity.

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