Thoughts and ideas on branding and brand development in a digital world.
Tag Archives: international branding
I remember the early days of the web when we had poor screen resolution and were just getting to grips with anti-aliasing. ‘Jaggies’ – saw-edges on diagonal lines were a common problem and designers avoided the use of italic type and angled logos. In fact some major brands subtly altered their corporate signatures to ensure good screen reproduction.
Then we saw web graphics impacting upon print design. Logos started taking on button form with radiused corners, 3-dimensional shines, glows and drop shadows.
The latest phenomenon seems to be an increasing use of logos which will fit into a generally square format. Behind this is the influence of social media. Identifiers on Facebook, Twitter et al, were initially photographic head-shots – ideal for a personal, social medium. Now that commercial organisations are increasingly using social channels, they need brand signatures to fit.
For a long time, western corporate signatures were generally horizontal – perhaps a symbol and a brand name. This was ideal for print media. The signature fitted comfortably at the foot of an ad or the top of a letter, along a shop fascia or a vehicle side. However, recently we’ve been required to create adapted signatures for a number of brands (including our own) which fit to a 1:1 shape, for use on Facebook pages etc.
It seems like we are coming full circle. The earliest trademarks are reputedly those of blacksmiths making swords for the Roman legions. These were applied by punches. In the days when few tradesmen were literate, punches, seals, stamps and other marks would be used and would generally fit in a square or circular area. It was only with the growth of literacy that more horizontal ‘signatures’ became common though often used together with a symbol.
The first registered trademark in the UK is the Bass Brewery mark – a red, equilateral triangle – which would fit in a 1:1 area.
In the east, pictograms already fit tidily into rectangles. Elegant examples are the artists ‘chops’ used on japanese prints rather than western style signatures.
New technology once again coaxes us back into old approaches, and once again it is becoming cool to be square.
This may seem obvious, but does your brand name translate into your target languages? Even proper names may have an unintended meaning. Don’t just think of the spelling – when pronounced, even seemingly harmless words may have unintended meanings.
Do you use descriptive words in your brand such as, ‘Norfolk Car Parts’ or ‘Budget Printing’? Will these words be meaningful in your selected markets.
You may not need to change a brand name, but it may help to emphasise just part of your title.
Also consider any statements or strap-lines that form part of your corporate signature; these may need adapting in translation.
While language may be easy to check, culture is rather more subtle, and potentially a bigger trap. There is no quick fix. You need to do your research and immerse yourself as far as possible in the culture of your market. Look at the media, both online and offline; look at your competitors.
Best of all, expose your brand to nationals of your target markets. Discuss your ambitions. Use your partners in-market; agents, distributors etc. Talk to embassy staff.
You’ll soon appreciate how culture impacts upon many of the other dimensions of your branding activity.
3. Brand Story
Is your brand narrative relevant to your target market? Things that may seem unimportant at home may be leveraged to advantage internationally. While your location may have little relevance to home customers, it may be a strong plus abroad. Consider the cultural context: for example, history of a family business may be very important in certain markets.
4. Competitive positioning
The perception of your brand position relative to your competitors from market to market. Be aware and be sensitive, you can often use this to your advantage. Don’t assume that your positioning will be the same as it is at home.
5. Core Values
Your core values are what makes your brand what it is. They should be strong and consistent wherever you do business. You must be clear about them and communicate them to all you work with – your staff, your partners in market, your customers and supply chain. Don’t tinker with them, but just be aware that certain values may be more important in some markets more than others.
Intellectual property rights – consider them all; brand names, trademarks, patents, designs, copyright etc.
Legal protection may be difficult or costly across export markets, but you must give them consideration. It is important to give your brand all the protection you can apply or afford. It is equally important to make sure you don’t infringe the IPR of others.
Remember, a strong brand can often be the best protection you can get – be first to market, establish a strong presence and leave potential copyists playing catch-up.
7. Visual communications.
Though language is important, visual and non-verbal communications have an equally powerful part to play. When you see the ‘golden arches’ of Macdonalds, or the Apple symbol, you don’t need the name. Strong visual symbolism can be a means of transcending language difficulties.
Consider the elements of your corporate identity, symbols, colours, typography. Maintain rigid visual standards.
It’s important to look at the cultural context of your visual elements. What semantic connotations do your colours have? In many cultures colours are far more important, and signify different states.
It’s interesting to note how HSBC is capitalizing on its Chinese roots in its current brand promotion. I used to be a customer of the old Midland Bank, when it was taken over by HSBC many years ago. The new owners were very low-key about the branding, reassuring customers that little would change and they would be like every other bank on the high street. Those were the days, of course, when banks were fairly universally respected.
HSBC is now promoting itself as a global bank – but more significantly as an unashamedly Chinese/Hong Kong bank. Advertising and promotional material employs oriental actors and artifacts, and Chinese metaphors abound in the creative concepts.
We can only speculate upon the strategic thinking behind this subtle shift in positioning, but it does seem to make sense to build upon a point of differentiation in a crowded and muddy marketplace. With European banks mired in debt turmoil and the Chinese economy still relatively buoyant, it may make sense to differentiate yourself from the western banks.
It is not a unique strategy to build upon your national roots. If those national values have international currency and also accord with your brand values, it can make a great deal of sense. We have seen German brands build upon their national characteristics and reputation for engineering expertise, while Italian brands have exploited a distinction for style and design. Banking, however, has been a strange category where reputation and probity have always been key brand values - one might almost say critical success factors. British banks used to delight in their traditional values. Sadly, recent history has tarnished many reputations and banking brands in general are viewed with caution and suspicion.
It might seem curious for a Chinese heritage to be considered a brand asset – certainly it would not be the first characteristic to spring to mind. But it certainly creates a valid platform upon which to build a brand definition. At the moment the chinese economy is still some thing of a tiger so perhaps it makes sense to ride it. However, there is a Chinese proverb ”Ch’i ‘hu nan hsia pei”, which may be translated as ”He who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount.”
All brands operate on an increasingly international stage – thanks to a great extent to the internet. Whether the brand seeks to perform internationally or not is a commercial decision for the organisation behind it. But as more and more brands choose to operate in lucrative global markets, the spotlight is thrown on the brands’ preparedness for the challenges presented.
The first challenge is how far the brand should be internationalized. Most major brands have already taken this decision very seriously. A careful analysis will show if the brand’s core values have international appeal in the major world markets. Beyond these deep core values are a set equally important subsidiary values that go to make up the brand’s proposition. A key issue for international branding is the struggle to be all things to all people. To strive for one brand proposition is likely to result in an anodyne, toothless offer at best.
Let us be clear, I am taking about brand propositions not about values: brand values are intrinsic and should only change slowly over time if they are to be credible. What is fundamental, is that some brand values will be more important in certain markets than in others. Let’s take the obvious example of a brand’s national heritage. A UK brand’s ‘britishness’ may be unimportant in its home market, but may be extremely important in certain export markets while being irrelevant in others. This does not mean the values change – you cannot easily change your heritage – but its prominence and strength as part of the proposition will change from market to market.
It may be useful to consider the ‘Key’ model:
The ‘core’ brand values – what the brand is fundamentally about can be thought of as the shaft of a key. These are the foundations of the proposition and relatively unchanging and are usually emotionally rooted..
Then we have a set of subsidiary, but nonetheless important brand values. These are often the most visible elements of the proposition. They are normally associated with more declarative and pragmatic dimensions of the brand offer.
However, these brand values, while they may be common across the majority of markets will not carry the same importance in each. Where environmental credentials may be very important to one market, they may be less important in another. Size may be reassuring to one country but irrelevant to another.
To be successful, the brand must adjust its proposition from market to market. Let me emphasise, the brand’s values do not change, but the proposition must recognise the difference in relative importance of these values to the local markets. The values are international but the propositions can be local to varying degrees. The key is still the same just cut slightly differently to fit the lock.
Most big brands have long taken a global perspective which has led to an increasing homogenization of values, communications and identities. Corporate ownership shifts, managers are mobile as are business bases. A few decades ago brands often had distinctive characteristics reflecting their nationality or country of origin. When Japanese brands first came to the West in force, in the 50s and 60s, they had an unmistakable personality. In the same decades Russian brands also began to appear in the western Europe and the US, displaying their own eccentricities. Today, it is difficult, if not impossible, to discern a brand’s country of origin without some prior knowledge. How many times have you been surprised to learn the country of origin of a high street retailer or even your energy supplier?
It is interesting how oil company brands are truly international and as such, almost interchangeable. To the consumer, brand nationality is of no interest. However it is also interesting how, following the Gulf disaster, BP was suddenly characterised as ‘British’ Petroleum by President Obama.
The reasons behind much of this convergence is to be applauded: it derives from brand stewards being sensitive to the cultures and values of their various markets – for sound commercial reasons, I might add. Even smaller companies with their small brands are striving to internationalize them. I work with a lot of such companies looking to take their brands into export markets and urge and support them to investigate, research and understand the dynamics of local cultures and values. It is important to have regard of all possible markets now and in the future.
There are times however, when nationality of origin is a vital brand strength and its protection and communication should be enhanced – Scotch whisky, English tailoring, Swiss watch brands and more can all draw strength from their national characteristics.
But national idiosyncrasies apart, it is a little sad that the characters of brand origins are becoming subsumed in an international standard. If there is one country where brand quirkiness seems to survive, it is China. I love collecting chinese branded products from my local oriental supermarket and celebrate such brands as ‘Healthy Boy’ soy sauce. But I’m going to hang on to my packs and bottles with their distinctive labels as I’m sure it will not be long before these brands become internationalized and the world gets just a little less interesting.
I’m currently working on a programme to deliver audits and reviews of brands for clients looking to take them into international markets for the first time. Key points for assessment will include, culture, language, IPR issues, competitive positioning, accreditation, legal barriers and environmental issues. I would be keen to know what dimensions people have found most critical and challenging when positioning brands globally?
When I’m working with organisations looking to internationalize their brands to do business in foreign markets, we often have to spend some time considering the distinction between the ‘brand proposition’ and the ‘brand values’. The brand proposition (or offer) should be flexible to suit the culture and social mores of the individual markets. Even within what may seem like geographically close markets, the emphasis of various dimensions of the offer may need to shift. For example, a few years ago I was involved in the launch in the UK of a range of US fitness equipment. The launch was successful and the decision was made to roll it out over Europe. The client believed the same brand offer was appropriate across the target countries. However, research showed subtle differences in each country’s attitudes to exercise. The British wanted to be fit and lose weight, the French were more interested in looking good, while the Germans wanted to be strong and fit.
If you wish to learn more about surprising cultural differences, I thoroughly recommend Geert Hofstede’s excellent book, Cultures and Organizations – Software of the Mind. Or take a look at his personal site http://stuwww.uvt.nl/~csmeets/.
The further you venture from your own culture, the more prepared you may need to be to change the emphasis of the offer – the brand ‘proposition’ may need to change.
This is where the distinction comes between the brand proposition and the brand values – propositions may change, but values are more static. It may be helpful to think of the values as more strategic, while the offer is more tactical. Consider the parallels with diplomacy – where a nation’s values should remain the same across its foreign policy, the way its diplomats deal with different countries with different cultures, regimes and attitudes will vary greatly.
The brand offer is pragmatic – amenable to persuasion, argument and declarative proof. Brand values are fundamentally emotional – they are to do with a meta-knowledge we have about a brand; a different ontology that is less accessible to change by argument.
So, megabank Santander is to rebrand its UK subsidiaries, gobbling up such old high street names as Abbey, Alliance and Leicester and Bradford and Bingley. Gut instinct says it must make all kinds of sense. The sub-brands no longer have he profile they once did, nor I would guess, attract the same loyalty they once did as mutuals. Santander is not a completely alien name in the UK, and the economies of scale and reach the bank can achieve in mounting global campaigns and butressing the status of the main brand seems eminently sound.
I just find myself wondering whether the great and good at Santander also just worked on that simple, empirical logic? Or did they do a brand evaluation and really but some figures against the value of their brands. I say this out of my experience of major financial institutions. Where their whole ethos is built upon numbers, values and calculations, strategic brand decisions are curiously more often made without such rigorous calculations of brand values. Looking at the £12m they say the exercise will cost, I am sure they know exactly what savings they will make in stationery and marketing communications… but have they really worked out the value of those brands? When such decisions are made the oligarchic structure of the bank tends to kick in and corporate egos take over.
That said, my gut feeling is it is the right thing to do for an international brand… but moving from an endorsed identity to a monlithic one is a brave step and not without its hazards. In today’s climate, especially for financial institutions, putting all your eggs in one brand basket may be a risky endeavour.
Okay, I’m back after a long Christmas break and time to see how brands have fared over the last couple of weeks. Been a pretty bloody time for retail brands, and I’m still fascinated by the goodwill people feel about the Woolworth brand. Politically, some nations don’t seem to be doing their brands a great deal of good, but one of the most amazing national brand exercises seems to still be punching way above its weight… Cuba. The Castros have done the most amazing job over the last half century… an iconic leader, much emulated… fame by association with the most powerful nation in the world. And a profile higher than many greater nations can command.