Crossing cultural divides

Creating a global brand is a burning ambition for many marketers, but some products develop stronger local ties when they are left to their own devices. By Martin Croft

Global brands have often been seen as the Holy Grail of marketing, and there is still a belief that worldwide icons such as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s and are the pinnacle of the marketer’s art.

But for years marketers working at major multinational companies have been quietly pursuing a very different route to globalisation, questioning whether every international brand should be treated as an embryonic global brand, with a single, monolithic visual identity, or whether some should be allowed to develop in a different way.

In packaging terms, the arguments for the monolithic approach can seem persuasive. If you use the same packaging across international borders, you can achieve enormous economies of scale in design, printing and so on. You can use the same advertising in different territories. And you can ensure that consumers can recognise your brand anywhere in the world.

Though this works for Coca-Cola and McDonald’s which, for all their success, are actually very simple propositions in terms of product, positioning and customers, but for the majority of brands, such adherence to a uniform visual identity may not be necessary. It can even hurt your sales in some markets.

There is another argument against imposing a single visual identity on brands around the world. Start Creative managing director Mike Curtis warns that many brands with global pretensions are having any points of difference ironed out of them. He says: “New identities are being researched and refined until there is no personality left. The human touch has been engineered out of too many global brand identities.”

Judging on their merits

Paul Walton, chairman of brand consultancy The Value Engineers believes that, while there may be strong economic arguments for some brands being absolutely identical wherever they are sold, for other brands there may be equally strong economic arguments for retaining local differences.

Rather than trying to apply a single global identity, some multinational brand owners look at bringing similar brands with similar positionings in different markets increasingly into line in terms of packaging and marketing. Walton calls this “convergence”.

He cites the example of Unilever’s men’s toiletries brand, which in the UK is sold as Lynx. “In most of the world it is known as Axe, except in South Africa, where it is Ego. It’s very much the same pack, the same line extensions, the same advertising, but there’s never been any real need to have exactly the same brand name. It’s a highly converged positioning, rather than a harmonised brand.”

Unilever’s decision to allow Lynx/Axe/Ego to keep its different brand names is in contrast to the same company’s attitude to other major international brands. For instance, Unilever took stock of its domestic cleaning brands and decided to use one brand name for its leading cleaning product range, so what in the UK used to be Jif, and in other countries Viss, became know worldwide as Cif.

Taking the convergent route

Another example of Unilever opting for a “convergent” approach rather than a monolithic one is the recent revamped global visual identity for its frozen-food brands.

The redesign is the public face of a &£60m initiative to revitalise Unilever frozen foods, and has been managed centrally at Unilever’s European headquarters under the guidance of global brand director Andrew Beattie. Working with brand managers for Birds Eye, Findus and Iglo, as well as the central office, “brand guardians” Carter Wong Tomlin have made sure that the new look can be implemented locally in a way that reflects regional tastes and cultures.

Phil Carter of Carter Wong Tomlin says: “The challenge was enormous but we found a way to show that all Unilever frozen food shares the same values without undermining the local brands. Thus, each market retains its famous name.”

If even Unilever, widely seen as a champion of monolithic global brands, can allow a lack of uniformity in certain cases, then perhaps there is indeed an alternative approach for international brands.

Glenn Tutssel, creative director of design agency Enterprise IG, says: “All global brands have a consistent brand packaging language that is the consumer’s signal of trust, recognition, reassurance and an easy option. The question is: does trust come from the brand and its values, or from the packaging?”

Arguing in favour of giving local marketers some autonomy in interpreting brand values in terms of packaging, Tutssel suggests: “The idea of every pack around the world being identical could be a missed opportunity to gain local market share. After all, the pack is a cost-effective way to advertise your brand, and how much more effective can it get than a brand relating to a consumer’s culture?”

Peter Matthews, founder of brand experience consultancy Nucleus, points out that the growth of the internet as a marketing medium and as a convenient way for consumers to buy products directly (often across national boundaries) has had an enormous impact on companies’ attitudes to their brand’s visual identities.

But managing a brand’s visual identity and having exactly the same packaging wherever the brand is sold are not necessarily one and the same thing.

Take the case of the international lubricants brand Castrol. According to Simon Gore, general manager of Vibrandt, the global brand design agency which has recently come up with a new look for the product range, it became clear that what was needed was an adaptable framework. With Castrol, Vibrandt worked with the central marketing team in the UK to develop a series of design templates which local Castrol marketers could then take to local agencies and develop packaging relevant to their own market.

Gore says: “We were trying to create a recognisable brand architecture that clearly said Castrol, but which could be flexible depending on the needs of the individual products in different markets. For instance, in the UK, oil is something you have put in your car at the garage, but in India, oil is almost as important as petrol.”

One product, different uses

This meant the packaging for what was ostensibly the same product in the UK and India had to be targeted at completely different types of user, and so ended up looking strikingly different – although still obviously Castrol.

Single global identities may work for a few, but the majority of international brands would do better to opt for flexibility. As long as the core brand vision remains the same, how that translates in visual terms in different markets is of secondary importance.

To paraphrase Sony founder Akio Morita’s famous apothegm: “Think global, look local.”

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