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Global brand, local appeal: How brands communicate with local markets using soft power

Image credit: prettyinprint via Flickr, CC 2.0

Global brands live or die by their appeal in local markets. Researchers Julien Cayla and Giana M. Eckhardt claim that ‘despite the hype about global brands and global business, the world economy is fundamentally regional’, and it’s difficult to argue. Whether it’s the product or service offering, or the branding and marketing message, something has to change when a business is looking at a new and different marketplace.

We’ve already looked at some significant gaffes made by brands who have tried to adapt their offering to a new marketplace. Today we’re digging down into the theory and practice – what challenges are involved in localising a global brand, what benefits are offered, and some examples of successful localisation by major brands.

Challenges in localising

The World Advertising Research Centre reports that only 32% of marketers believe they perform “well” or “extremely well” at adapting their branded content for regional markets, audiences and partners.

The same survey revealed that localisation demands – language, cultural values, religion and ethnic sensitivities – put pressure on 48% of global-scale creative teams. In other words, most marketers aren’t confident in their ability to localise their content, and nearly half see localisation as a global level responsibility. These concerns feed into each other – it’s rare for a global level team to have enough local insight and sensitivity to deliver optimal marketing practice for every region in which a global brand operates.

It may be tempting for a brand to focus on the marketplaces most similar to its country of origin, but even this conservative approach to global marketing has its downsides. 

For example, Asian brands find that negative country-of-origin perceptions stack with shaky regional positioning to present major challenges in taking their offering to what, on the face of things, are very similar neighbouring markets.

The solution? Stop relying on shared cultural heritage (since this is where the negative perceptions have their roots) and focus on a shared sense of modernity and futurity instead, along with whatever prestige the brand can attract at global level. This need to appeal to global-level values to escape regional challenges means every brand gains something from looking at global marketing techniques and trends.

Benefits of localising

Cross-cultural media advisor and Brand2Global co-organiser Nitish Singh observes that standardised, top-down offerings from global brands often fail because the very nature of international marketing encourages a diverse, nuanced approach. Between physical environments, political and legal systems, culture, product usage conditions and economic development, regional and local markets have so many interwoven differences that an amount of tailoring and tweaking is almost mandatory.

Singh cites a double handful of blunders from multinationals operating out of developing economies, including the Chinese car brands Geely and Cherry, which play badly in the neutral-to-masculine Western auto marketplace, and Mexico’s Bimbo Bread, which comes across as sexist on the other side of the US border. These products are doomed before they start – unless they rebrand.

Proper localisation avoids a flop or worse, a major backlash from offended customers, which might permanently damage the brand on a global level. It positions the brand to align with local values and expectations, and makes necessary adjustments to the product or service to comply with local regulations or customer habits.

This doesn’t mean that all marketing efforts have to take place locally. The Nestlé approach – having content and assets produced globally, by one agency, and delivered through one portal to local operations – is 20% cheaper than having local agencies produce local material. Similarly, Britvic’s approach involves local brand teams which look for similarities across borders, commissioning and deploying assets which will work in a range of contexts, rather than customising everything.

Examples – how can a global brand appeal at local level?

One option is tailoring the product and the brand to a specific marketplace. Gillette’s Francisco Tortora describes the recently-launched Gillette Guard, a razor designed from the ground up for the Indian marketplace.

In this market, consumers have very little water or private space – they’re shaving in the kitchen, from cups. Despite this, there’s a strong sense of dignity and tradition attached to shaving in this culture. The product created for this market is simple, straightforward, and classic, and it’s entirely made in India; it isn’t an ill-fitting import, and it doesn’t boast an abundance of luxuries in its branding materials.

McDonalds, of all brands, takes a similarly nuanced, localised approach. In the US, McDonalds owes its success to consistent, standardised, predictable experiences – and this is true in any region. It’s when you compare across regions that you realise that the McDonalds core offering in India is a consistent, standardised and predictable spicy paneer wrap, while the Malaysian McDonalds offers bubur ayam – chicken strips, porridge and fried vegetables. The global brand identity changes gears to offer the same values and identity, but attached to a very different product.

Even something as straightforward as mayonnaise can be tailored for local appeal. Oil, eggs and vinegar don’t seem to offer much nuance, but you’d be surprised. In Spain Kraft sell Sabor Traditional under the European wide Kraft Mayonnaise banner. A simple change, but one which repositions the entire brand, shifting the emphasis from raw quality into heritage, nostalgia and cultural resonance; yet the rest of the brand identity aligns with the Kraft Mayo brand across neighbouring European markets, keeping it consistent and putting across Kraft’s values.

The key lesson here is research. Best practice in multicultural, cross-border market research starts with demographics and practicalities. Identify the ethnic and linguistic composition of the market, down to dialect level – regional dialects make a huge difference in how brands and their work are perceived.

Pilot studies and focus groups to identify problems before committing to mass production and campaigning are definitely a wise step to take. Engaging local consultants and guides can nip problems in the bud, as well as providing a local ‘alter ego’ for your brand in the early stages.

That research will show you the culture, the language, the ticks and the pains of that market, allowing you to build a solution that combines hard and soft power – the direct address to pain points, and the nuanced, sensitive, local-fronted messaging.


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