Cultural Avatars, part two

Change is the new constant in the world today, and it’s felt particularly strongly in field of international marketing. Global brands must consider the context of the world flattening in order to garner the attention they seek, as Thomas Friedman put it almost prophetically in his recent book, The Flat World.

Ideals vs Reality

The myth that needs to be punctured is that a brand must be perceived by millions of people around the world in the exact same way. In fact, the majority of global brands may in fact be far more successful than they realized, were they not held up to the mythical idea of what a successful global brand should be.

Take the example of McDonalds, a truly successful global brand if there was one, far more so than Coca-Cola, the ubiquitous number one. For the main reason that the effort McDonald’s puts into creating communication strategies that are human centered is enormous. They go into new markets and study them with the keen eye of those trained in ethnographic methods and then put those insights into use. Not just to create new products tailored to that particular cultural market, such as the no beef rule imposed on India, but to also interpret their brand’s values into concepts and terms that evoked the same values in their ‘adopted’ culture by using cues relevant to that context.

One could say that aspects of Levitt’s globalisation of markets theory remain unchanged through the evolution of global markets today. In particular, the way that brands are perceived and managed. The ideal that a brand’s values would be interpreted the same way across cultures regardless of whether cues and signals of quality were culturally appropriate or not is a hard one to live up to.

In reality, the majority of the world’s household brands today are perceived as ‘one of us’ in each of their markets, few housewives in countries as far apart as India and Malaysia would realize that the Lux brand is an international brand, belonging to the consumer product giant, Unilever. Lux equals beauty, and this has been culturally interpreted in the packaging and the advertising to meet the local standards of beauty rather than imposing one singular global standard.

Cultural Avatars

This is not a difficult model to follow. Aspiring global brands from rapidly developing economies are already doing it. Perhaps it’s a lesson established brands can learn from them. Call them ‘insecure’ brands, because they are just setting out to establish a foothold in the global market. The Hisense’s and the Mahindra & Mahindra’s out there are wholly aware of the need to interpret their brand values into the cues their target markets can understand.

One reason for this is that the language of business in these countries is for the most part, not English, the lingua franca, one could say of global business today. So they are already accustomed to interpreting delicate negotiations and relationship building across linguistic and cultural barriers. They know how difficult it is to navigate a new culture, particularly the dominant one, so different from one’s own.

Another reason is that they’ve already seen the mistakes leading global brands made when they entered their home countries – today’s rapidly developing economies were yesterday’s emerging major markets like India and China, Brazil and Russia. If the world’s biggest and most sophisticated consumer market is their eventual target, then they will go practice on each other’s turfs first.

For example, Tata Coffee, who recently purchased the leading US coffee wholesaler, Eight O Clock Coffee Company, is taking this heritage brand to the Russian market first. They already are a player in the instant coffee market in Russia, and will practice creating a premium brand there before getting active the US market.

What difference does it make to them if Russian culture is totally different from American culture, bad Cold War jokes apart? They know they will have to put on a cultural avatar that suits the needs of the American market when they enter, they don’t expect it to be the same as what worked in Russia.

Similarly, this identification of their core identity and the subsequent donning of cultural avatars is exactly what McDonalds does best.

At home in every market

Taking the strategy to become ‘at home’ in every market is a decision that a global brand must make. For example, Burberry’s is considered to be a mid range luxury brand around the world, except in Spain and Japan. They need to ask themselves how much is it worth to alienate their existing Japanese and Spanish customers by making efforts to reposition themselves in these markets? And what are the appropriate signals to use in these cultures?

IKEA learnt the pitfalls of holding on tightly to their Swedishness when they first entered the Japanese market, quite unlike their own. They pulled out in confusion in 1986 and have only just launched a store in Tokyo, twenty years later. What did they learn this time around? That they could retain the essential Swedishness of their brand through their choice of materials, finishes and designs of their furniture, while adapting the do it yourself aspect and size of the products to the needs of the Japanese market. Perhaps they will stay for twenty years, this time around.

On the other side of the coin, when cultural cues are not taken into full consideration, brands can lose far more than just revenue. Once credibility or trust in a brand is gone, it can take years to rebuild an identity in the same market. A case in point is the current rebranding of MTS, Eastern Europe’s largest mobile service provider in Russia. The cue for simplicity in English language idiom is an egg, but this concept did not translate across to the Russian market, with dismal results. More than just another amusing example of cross cultural or translation mistakes made in international marketing, this exemplifies the need to interpret a brand value appropriately for maximum business impact in the market.

Once a brand feels at home in a market, the comparative advantages to its brand value are enormous. Not just in sales, but even in brand recognition, where the name would evoke a far more visceral reaction than just the recognition of the name or logo, a goal that every global brand should in fact be attempting to reach. How can they touch the lives of millions of people around the world?

written by niti bhan and manuel toscano, july 10th 2006

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7 Responses to Cultural Avatars, part two

  1. Ok this is going to sound totally nitpicky…
    I think IKEA weakens your arguement. Your example involved adapting thier products to Japan’s unique urban physical environment, not the brand to a uniqu culture. Their products that work in small European apartments don’t in micro Japanese places.
    I took a virtual trip around IKEA’s international stores–online of course. What struck me to most was how absoluely consistent the brand’s visual design language, the brand’s essential Swedishness (you want sweedish meatballs and some of Ana’s cookies in Dubai, Sydney, Ankara? IKEA’s your place!), and (where I could read the language) the brand’s fundamental message of frank practicality, economy, simplicity and ease.
    I tried to find where IKEA adapted their brand to local culture, and could not. Maybe some brands do best by not adapting: Malboros, Prada, and perhaps IKEA?

  2. Niti Bhan says:

    John,
    You add very valuable insight to the argument, and I hate to have to say this, niblettes, you are right on the money with your observation on IKEA. So one could say that they hold on to their brand’s identity but adapt their customer service and touchpoint details?

  3. neelakantan says:

    I like the connection with the word avatar – where your core value remains the same, yet you may don different roles at different points in time to accomplish your mission!

  4. niti bhan says:

    Yes! exactly so, Neelankantan, when the concept of the word “avatar” is understood, it is very well named. thank you.

  5. niti bhan says:

    http://www.pingmag.jp/2006/10/13/top-10-ad-tricks-in-tokyos-train-stations/
    one series is Ikea ads in tokyo trains… very nice look at how they’ve kept it minimal, something that matches both swedishness and japaneseness, imho.

  6. Charu says:

    I think the “ideal” is where a brand manages to retain some core values so customers get a feeling of consistency, at the same time, have local manifestations – McDonald’s no-beef policy and Indian pricing apart, there is something the “same” about McDonalds across the world… without which it would be just another fast food brand.
    I had a different twist to the same issue you have addressed here – to what extent should a company “compromise” on its core values, (for lack of a better word here) or “internationalness” in order to please the local market… does this actually create any harm in the long run? I was pondering over this whern I went for a cruise last week on an international liner that has recently started cruises from Bombay – and found it entirely “Gujaratitised”… here is the question – ‘going local… to what extent?’ – http://mindspace.wordpress.com/2006/10/23/going-local-to-what-extent/ (yeah, I know these plugs are awful but I would really appreciate your views on this!)

  7. niti bhan says:

    I touched upon that question here
    http://www.nitibhan.com/perspective/2006/07/we_can_recreate.html
    where the question becomes, what are they trying to sell? an international cruise experience, or one that the jain can enjoy without onions?
    Quote: “Then again, its not the names per se, since Athens is in Georgia and a Delhi and Calcutta as well, but the attempt to capture something more intangible. I don’t feel strongly about this trend either way, I just wonder where and how it relates to my other musings on global brands – are they replicating a quality of life that is perceived to be less third world, or will an imported name sell more houses?”

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