Are national links good for a brand?

Many companies associate themselves with specific countries in order to add value to their brand. These associations are often considered misleading and, as Moben recently discovered, can lead to censure.

Moben Kitchens is based in Manchester. This may come as a surprise to those who have seen the company’s ads, which spell Moben with an umlaut over the “o”.

This month, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled that the umlaut nurtured the belief that the company was German, and that it was trying to link itself with that country’s reputation for craftsmanship (MW last week). It ordered Moben to remove the umlaut from its ads.

No one at Moben was available for comment, but if the company is aggrieved, it is perhaps justified. Many companies are using names that aren’t relevant to their country of origin to give them or their products an edge.

For instance, the sandwich chain Pret A Manger was established in the UK; Häagen-Dazs ice cream was created by Minneapolis-based Pillsbury – and the origin of the name remains a mystery, even to the company. However, some companies, such as Ikea, do have a genuine heritage to build upon.

The use of national heritage, whether real or fictional, is an important, but dangerous marketing tool. Wolff Olins board director John Williamson says it can be a powerful tool for a company entering a market. “Many brands play on a strong national identity. It’s a cheap way of getting a position in a market. You don’t have to invest in a brand idea. History pays for it,” he says.

There are problems, however. UK clothes manufacturer Ben Sherman plays on its British mod/rock roots in its advertising, but in the past it has run into trouble. A 1998 poster campaign featuring skinheads struck the wrong chord with the public, who found it threatening. The ads weren’t pulled, but its new ads are more reserved, carrying the strapline “Cut from a different cloth”.

Ben Sherman brand marketing manager Rob Blake says: “For Ben Sherman a skinhead is someone into ska music – for others they represent neo-fascists. Ben Sherman had to be very careful. It would be ignorant of Ben Sherman to say that it doesn’t want to associate itself with people who shout on football terraces, because they are its customers. What it doesn’t want is to encourage them.”

Superbrand chairman Marcel Knobil confirms that companies that emphasise nationality in their marketing are playing a risky game. He says: “If you nail your company to the mast of a particular country, you have no control over that brand. An English brand only needs fans to create trouble at next year’s football World Cup to have its reputation undermined.”

As Moben found out, there are also restrictions to look out for. The ASA code states that an ad “should not mislead by inaccuracy, ambiguity, exaggeration, omission or otherwise”. Additionally, under European law there are strict guidelines about the labelling of a product’s country of origin. For instance, a company cannot use the term Champagne to describe its wine unless it comes from the Champagne region of France, – although, interestingly, wines made and sold in the US can and do.

If choosing to use nationality as a marketing tool, a company must make sure it suits its brand. According to research by Wolff Olins, German companies are perceived as producing high quality and expensive products; UK businesses are associated with high quality products and services; and the Italians have a reputation for leading the way in design.

The Italian association with fashion was the reason why Marks & Spencer (M&S) launched its Italian-style clothing range five years ago. The range includes classic designs made from Italian material, even though the suits are made in the UK, Israel and Italy.

M&S men’s suits product developer Maria Leeke says: “Italian tailoring took off with the Armani trend. Everyone looked to Italy for inspiration. Italy is seen as a centre of excellence for tailoring and fabrics.”

In the car industry, German companies such as BMW, Volkswagen (VW), and Mercedes add a premium to the brand just because of their country of origin.

A BMW spokesman says: “German car brands stand for reassurance. Part of the German psyche is that they are very precise and set themselves very high standards, particularly in engineering. It’s not just cars that they are good at, it is most electrical products.”

But other car brands have been tarnished through associations with a particular country. None more so than Skoda, the Czech car manufacturer, which although successful prior to the Second World War, was plunged into oblivion afterwards.

Fitting into the “cheap and cheerful” category, Skoda cars had the reputation of being ugly, badly designed and unreliable. They were also the butt of jokes such as “Why does a Skoda have a heated rear screen? To keep your hands warm when you’re pushing it”.

Seeing potential in the marque, Volkswagen acquired a 30 percent share in the company in 1991 and with it full management control, and last year it bought the remaining share. Skoda’s association with a German company has made an impact. Consumers know the cars are now VW-built, and that, combined with a trendy ad campaign created by Fallon, has helped the company sell more than 22,000 Skodas in the UK so far this year.

Similarly, Japanese cars were once considered cheap. Now they are considered among the best for design and engineering, accounting for 15 per cent of UK car sales. This year, Honda, Toyota and Mazda were among the top performers in a reliability table, published in the Consumer Association’s Which? Car magazine.

The pitfalls of having a name linked to specific national origins, combined with a company’s global aspirations, are reason enough for adopting neutral brand names. Virgin and Orange are examples cited by observers. And this month, BT Wireless announced that it would rebrand BT Cellnet and its associated networks in other countries as O2 next year, because the name is “modern and universal” (MW September 6).

However, Knobil argues that nationality can “form part of the DNA of a company. If you take it out, the company becomes hollow”. For instance, when British Airways (BA) redesigned its Union Jack tail fins in 1997 – to give the company a more international image – it experienced a backlash from customers and, most famously, from Margaret Thatcher. In 1999, BA began phasing out the designs – called Utopia – and replacing them with a red and blue flash design.

A BA spokeswoman says: “The Utopia designs were intended to position BA as global and caring. The message it got from its customers was that the Union Jack was the most popular design.”

Nevertheless Wolff Olins’ Williamson believes that global identities are the way forward. He says: “Brands that are not national are much more valuable. The future is about not becoming hostage to a country.”

Companies that use the nationality card are playing a risky game. It is an easy way of associating a product with an image, but it can tie a brand to the baggage associated with that country. As businesses become increasingly global, companies may find that national brand characteristics are a marketing straitjacket.

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