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Global theory, local practice

Developing an international brand strategy can bring out the worst, and best, of all those involved
Part of what makes global branding so hard is the contrasting objectives of local and global teams
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

Marketing is a discipline in which theory and practice can sometimes seem very distant cousins. Nowhere is this more true than in global branding – that seductive ideal of alignment behind a single, inspiring brand idea, brought to life in every corner of the world with just a subtle nod to local cultural norms.

MBA marketing modules teach the theory using cases, typically prepared by academics who have never run a brand, based on the how-we-did-it revelations of big global beasts such as Coke. Like all success stories, everything looks so ordered and inevitable from the safe, retrospective viewpoint.

Try it yourself, however, and it may prove the toughest challenge of your career. Part of what makes it so hard is the contrasting objectives of local and global marketers. Teams can find themselves in an uneasy dance through six distinct stages on the way to the result.

Stage one Rationalisation. The central team makes the argument for a unified global positioning. Often, this will reference dissatisfaction with the current arrangements. Martin Sorrell took this route to justify Ford’s recent global alignment, contrasting it with the multi-agency, multi-idea brand history, which he described as “fragmented, disaggregated and siloed”, adding, tersely: “It didn’t work.”

Stage two Confrontation. Local marketers collude with their agencies to rebut the global approach, arguing that it will lead to ‘lowest common denominator’ work. This is never easy to parry, but behind it is a rational flaw: the product itself is a single ‘big idea’ which presumably soars well above lowest common denominator status. Why not its positioning too?

Stage three Collaboration. Assuming the central team wins the early skirmishes, it invites its best regional talent to develop potential global routes, based on unifying emotions. In the event that one proves motivating in global research, a date is set for brand teams from around the world to meet to discuss how to locally embrace the idea.

Stage four Procrastination. Suddenly there’s a stumbling block that undermines the confidence of the central team. Often, it’s something in the numbers – the realisation, perhaps, that a big market, where the brand is delivering stellar revenues, has a rational, and peculiarly local, positioning, very different from the one that is doing best in research. Will the team really jettison that successful approach, underpinned by hard sales data, for an unproven positioning merely endorsed by qual?

Stage five Opportunism. Local teams sense the hesitation at the central level and, buoyed by the reality that they hold the budgets in any case, lobby with renewed vigour for their local work.

Stage six Compromise. The virtues of globalisation are acknowledged by local marketers in return for assurance that the big global idea will allow for considerable variance by market. Different emphases in key aspects of the global positioning framework will be permissible in each market.

In the end, you have a global positioning and idea, but plenty of variance too. More than you’d have wanted, less than the local guys would relish. Still, perhaps the pain was worth it – Millward Brown, in a recent report, argued that this is often the formula for successful global brands.

As for the relationship between you and your teams around the world, it’s distant, but you’re cousins nonetheless.

Global brands

Only 3% of the 10,000 brands in Millward Brown’s BrandZ global equity database are truly global or have significant presence in more than seven countries. The majority have significant share in only one.

Unilever has several brands sharing the same positioning globally, but with different brand names locally. Its leading shampoo brand is known as Sedal in Mexico, Seda in Brazil and Sunsilk in India and the US. Its ‘Heartbrand’ ice-cream positioning is represented in 40 countries under different names (including Wall’s in the UK and Asia, Algida in Italy, Langnese in Germany and Kibon in Brazil).

McDonald’s Consistent positioning

McDonald’s Consistent positioning

Although sometimes adapting to local tastes (Maharaja Mac in India), the McDonald’s positioning is one of the most consistent around the world. Its tagline “I’m lovin’ it” is translated into about 15 languages.

Ford continues to develop a consistent brand worldwide. Global agency WPP has created a Ford Focus campaign comprising one set of TV and print ads adapted into different languages.

“Because you’re worth it”, the famous tag from L’Oreal Paris, is instantly recognised by consumers in China. L’Oreal Group, however, also owns 16 local brands in China, such as Mini Nurse, one of the country’s top mass-market skincare brands.