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The subtle art of localisation

Should you localise a global brand? And how can you do that without losing your mojo?

We live in global times. Looking back at Interbrand’s 2005 Best Brand List what struck me is that the top players were those that dropped localisation in favour of operating as consistent global brands.

James BickfordSix years later the question is – how much do you localise today’s global brands? The answer lies within the character of each brand and for most it is simply – don’t localise.

The likes of Gucci would never bend its brand to local whims. Like most luxury brands Gucci is international by nature, whether in Auckland or Azerbaijan its brand persona is maniacally consistent. Internationalism is the very essence of its glamour which is why Gucci avoids diluting it with localisation.

It takes a brave brand to defy the cardinal rule of brand consistency. At the most basic level of branding, the logo rule is always – never change your logo. It is your brand’s face, change it and make your brand a stranger to millions. This rule was carved in stone until Google’s Larry Page decided to change his logo all the time, nearly every day, across every territory. And customers loved it.

But not every company is Google. You need brand heritage to play the protean game. You can only risk real localisation once you are truly established as a global brand. We live in the age of humanising brands which means that, rather like our personalities, the brand’s core must always remain recognisable no matter what country it is in.

New Zealand agencies and marketing departments make a good living localising global brands, adding a Kiwi touch to campaigns, ads and press releases. These agencies need to decide which parts to tweak, which parts to localise, and which are at the core of the brand and should not be altered.

One New Zealand marketing manager complained that all he did was replace the words ‘Press Release from London’ with ‘Press Release from Auckland’. His job had been reduced to that of Word’s find/replace tool. Others are a little more sophisticated in their approach to localisation.

For instance, global ad strategies such as Coke’s sublimely simple ‘Open Happiness’ can play to a 90-year-old Peruvian or five-year-old Kiwi and both immediately get it. But beyond the global singularity of Coke’s campaign it still localises the way it sells in a local territory or what it sponsors, for example Coke Zero’s Bound by Black campaign with the All Blacks. Such is the local flexibility of a deeply established global brand.

Localisation is a subtle art. McDonald’s regional menu items illustrates that adapting to local markets doesn’t mean sacrificing brand; it can actually boost the brand by making it relevant to a local market. It serves Kiwi burgers in New Zealand and Chicken Maharaja-Macs in India yet the products still remain true to the brand promise.

At the other end Disney is learning that localisation can be a strength. As Atsushi Iwashita, CEO of Interbrand Tokyo, observes “Disney suffers when it merely duplicates its amusement parks around the world. To stay consistent with its brand promise, it would be better to reinvent them to delight and entertain new and diverse customers.”

The Chinese proverb reads, ‘may you live in interesting times’, and I believe these are them. For too long the world ‘global’ has basically meant ‘Western’, or brands from developed countries in the West.

However, the East is rapidly catching up with the West’s brand train.

In the past Chinese businesses relied on price and production alone. They didn’t believe in brand, they didn’t need to. I challenge anyone to name one truly global Chinese brand.

That is about to change. What is remarkable about our 2011 Best China Brand list is China’s shift in the attitude towards brand, which is increasingly taking its rightful place as an essential ingredient of a successful business.

However, although China is starting to appreciate the importance of brand there is a colossal challenge ahead. Any smart Chinese business knows that it needs to build a brand big enough to smash the stigma of the worst global brand of them all - ‘Made In China’.

Never have three words been so ubiquitous yet so damaging. It is the reason China invested trillions into the Beijing Olympics, desperately trying to rub off that nasty label, to show the world it was about quality, not cheap copy-cat manufacturing.

China, Brazil, Russia are all learning fast from the West. The student will soon become the teacher. Five years ago who would believe that a Chinese company would launch a successful brand like the Great Wall Ute into the Australian market – the motherland of Utes. Yet that’s exactly what happened. So watch this space, life is about to get a lot more interesting.

James Bickford is managing director of Interbrand New Zealand. He lives in Auckland and speaks fluent Brandese with only a slight accent.

Originally published in NZ Marketing magazine, November/December 2011.