Making it big in the States is every brand owner’s dream. Despite a long list of overseas brands and companies that have seen their American dream turn into a nightmare, marketers are not put off. The lure of a market that accounts for half of the world’s consumer spending is just too great.
Unilever launches its Axe male toiletries range – Lynx in the UK – in the US this week (MW last week) with high hopes for its success. As a brand sold in 60 markets, cracking America is the last piece in a jigsaw puzzle of world domination. But the US market is notoriously tough.
It has proved to be a graveyard for UK retailers such as Marks & Spencer, Next, Laura Ashley and Dixons. WH Smith has just announced that its US outlets are likely to have lost &£19m in the year to end of August 2002, as a result of the US downturn. UK food manufacturer United Biscuits was all but destroyed by its disastrous US foray in the early Nineties. Cadbury Schweppes’ brands have had a hard time and paint brand Dulux has been accused of totally misjudging its entry into the American market a decade ago. Meanwhile multinationals such as BT and other telecommunications companies have been badly burnt by their American operations.
Best of British
However, there have been British success stories in the US. Meat substitute brand Quorn, publications Maxim and FHM, The Financial Times, and retailers Burberry and French Connection have all done well in the US. Swedish retailer H&M has been a runaway success and other European brands are looking to take their own piece of the American pie.
Observers on both sides of the Atlantic claim that companies often fail to crack America for the most obvious reasons – at least they appear obvious afterwards – such as failing to adapt to different market conditions, although this can be a secret to success as well.
Furthermore, brands from smaller, more easily dominated markets, such as the UK, often find it impossible to cope when exposed to the strong competition of the US. Barriers to entry in the American market are much lower. Rents and costs are cheaper and there is a wider availability of resources, such as land and skilled employees. But as soon as a product with a point of difference is launched, a dozen copycats will quickly appear. And marketing and advertising costs are far greater in the US, given the expense of running campaigns from coast to coast and the fragmentation of US media.
None of this has deterred Unilever, which is hoping to inject a hint of British irony into this week’s $90m (&£58m) launch of Axe in the US.
The household goods giant has flown teams of British marketing and advertising executives out to its Chicago and New York offices in preparation for the launch. While in the UK, the brand has built sales of &£65m a year with its “laddish” positioning – dangling the prospect of birds and good times for the young blokes who use it – there remains a question mark over how successful this formula will be in the US.
Since Lynx was introduced to the UK in 1985, it has been launched in some 60 other markets under the Axe name and is now worldwide brand leader in male toiletries. But Unilever has left the US launch a long way down the list, a testament to how hard it can be to succeed there.
Unilever believes it is on to a sure-fire winner with Axe in the US. It quotes figures from Euromonitor, showing that men’s grooming is booming – it was the second-fastest growing sector of personal care in 2000 behind colour cosmetics. And European designers and brands like Diesel are growing in urban markets throughout the country. “The explosion of men’s magazines both in Europe and in the US has helped reinforce this trend by assuring men it’s OK to look and feel good,” says Axe North American brand director Diggi Thomson.
But one source says the company is uncertain how to position the brand in the US and is looking to replicate some of the ironic branding that has been successful in the UK and other markets. “There isn’t a local resource of agencies that understand the irony of the brand’s campaigns and the launch could be wasted. It is about getting it right and finding the right way into that market,” says the source. Some wonder whether the jokey side of the brand will succeed in the US. Campaigns that have run in the UK include one where a young man finds himself carried off by a tribe of Amazonian beauties in animal-skin bras.
Unilever has handed the launch task to the US office of the brand’s UK ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) and has even given UK direct marketing agency Claydon Heeley Jones Mason, which has no US office, a key role in running the US launch.
BBH US planning director Emma Cookson – who is British – downplays the idea that Americans do not understand irony and need to bring in the British to teach them. She says: “I hear Europeans say that all the time, but just watch The Simpsons – you don’t get much more ironic than that. I am not so sure the humour difference is as extreme as people think.”
The Axe launch ties in with the success of British “lad titles” Maxim and FHM, which have stormed the US and introduced young American men to the delights of ogling half-dressed babes in a non-pornographic format. An advertiser’s dream, the magazines are seen as an ideal stalking horse for the many brands that are so eager to target young blokes – or “guys”. The launch party for Axe was hosted by FHM US in New York and there are strong associations between the brands and new, marketable conceptions of young manhood.
But even FHM had initial problems getting its product right in the US: the early format had to be scrapped as it was thought to contain too much cruel British humour. “People’s criticisms were that it was too English,” says the magazine’s US launch editor Ed Needham, who is British. “It had a dismissive, sneering sense of humour that felt foreign to them. We had to make a big deal out of it being an American magazine and stress that it was not a British import,” he says.
Since its launch in 2000, FHM US has achieved sales of 1 million a month – double its UK figure. And according to publishing director James Carter, some of its key UK advertisers have used the US edition to relaunch their American operations. Ben Sherman and Dr Martens have made great use of FHM US and French Connection has also used the magazine as it attempts to further expand in the US.
But he says its not all plain sailing and the conservative views of Detroit-based car advertisers had to be taken seriously. “Detroit is a very conservative place, and you have to win them over. You have to publish accordingly, so we have been more sensitive,” he says.
Global branding has the power to take the negatives of one market and to transform them into a positive in another. So Jaguar’s latest marketing in the US is promoting its British origins and the implication of quality craftsmanship that this still carries in the US. Little may the Americans realise that the UK’s car manufacturing industry is almost non-existent save for MG Rover, and that many people in this country avoid British-made engineering and electronics products like the plague.
Yet, Eric Scott, chief executive of brand agency Wolff Olins US, does not believe the strategy is working. He says: “Jaguar might be connecting with being British, but everyone understands that it is a Ford. It suffers from trying to cash in on British cachet, but there is something that doesn’t ring true about that.”
He says that many Americans want to believe in an essential Britishness and this can aid brands so long as the claim is genuine. “It harks back to a magical time in British history, the Sixties, and the strong personality and point of view that has always played very well in the US,” he says.
Dulux, the UK’s leading paint brand, tried to launch in the US in the early Nineties, though it had little success. One insider says the problem was that Dulux marketers believed so strongly that it was a powerful brand with a universal appeal that this alone would assure its success elsewhere. They soon found out that the Dulux name and positioning would not automatically open any doors in the US paint market, which was highly competitive and already had its own strong brands. As Marketing Week went to press, Dulux declined to comment on its US foray
Sometimes the lure is too great, even for those who have conspicuously failed in the past. It emerged last week that Cadbury Schweppes, which markets brands such as Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, Fruit and Nut and Caramello in the US through a distribution deal with Hershey, is reportedly taking steps to ensure that it is not left out in the cold if Nestlé ends up taking a stake in Hershey. Cadbury Schweppes is reportedly in talks with its Swiss rival about mounting a joint bid for Hershey.
Perhaps one of the most crushing British experiences in the US was the United Biscuits debacle which culminated in a painful exit from the market with the sale of its Keebler biscuit business in 1995.
While the US may beat Britain’s biscuits and confectionery producers hands down – United Biscuits has now been broken up – in the areas of fashion and music the British have had more success.
Perhaps the problem with the US is that it is just too inviting. Sharing a common language, many British brands and companies may believe that the culture and economy is similar too, which is far from reality. It is the prospect of great riches that drives the British on into the heart of the world’s last empire. But the American dream can still turn riches into rags as well as the other way round.