Talking your language

British consumers may care little about where in the world their preferred brands originate from, but it remains crucial that all marketing communications adapt to local conditions and cultures

The “act local, think global” maxim is something that many marketers live by, or at least try to. They understand that the world’s needs and desires have not been irrevocably homogenised.

Yet British consumers care less about whether a brand is locally owned than most other people in the world. According to research conducted by Millward Brown, more than 70% of those surveyed are proud to be from the UK, but only 31% agreed that they “always try to buy brands produced in my own country”.

This is even more remarkable when compared to other countries around the world – and at a time when the economic climate has seen politicians and executives implore a sense of national pride and support. Of the 3,000 people surveyed globally, those in China, India, Mexico, the US and Brazil were much more likely to buy brands locally produced, but Germans and Russians had similar views to the British people surveyed.

In most countries acting locally is a key part of global brand success. After all, there really is no such thing as a global consumer. People’s needs, values and desires differ dramatically from one country to the next.

Across eight countries, regression analysis found that being seen to be part of the national culture was a significant driver of purchase intent for both global and local brands but, perhaps not surprisingly, local brands tended to perform better on this attribute than global ones. To create strong relationships with consumers across cultures, a global brand needs to take regional differences into account and embrace the local culture.

Two countries deviate from this general finding – Russia and the UK. In both countries history helps explain why.

In Russia, for example, a brand that is seen as part of local culture undermines purchase intent because it evokes memories of poor quality goods of the Communist era. As a result, foreign brands are held in higher regard here.

In the UK, history also plays a part in explaining why British consumers seem less influenced by local culture. Since the days of the Empire, British people have become used to products acquired from around the world. And the fact that people travel more frequently these days means consumers now have a greater experience of foreign cultures and brands, which makes them more comfortable with buying brands from abroad.

Consumers are also influenced by a lower regard for brands in general and higher concern about getting the best price. In developed economies like the UK, people believe that most brands are the same and therefore are more likely to buy on price, a dimension that often favours imported brands.

However, there is some confusion about what brands are truly local. Nearly half of respondents (49%) agreed with the statement that “I don’t care if the brand I buy is owned by a foreign company”, and the evidence suggests that most people have little idea whether a brand is owned by a foreign company or not. Most respondents (87%) think Tetley tea is British, when it is in fact owned by the Indian company Tata, and 61% said the Mini was British, even though it is now owned by the German car manufacturer BMW.

Nor does a brand have to be British owned to be perceived as part of the national culture. Most people recognise Ford is American but that does not stop a good percentage believing it is part of our national culture.

This said, even with the UK’s apparent lack of concern about whether brands are produced locally or who owns them, some brands still manage to play the local card well. Of the men surveyed, 72% agreed that John Smith’s was part of the British culture, while in Scotland, eight out of ten people interviewed agreed Irn Bru was part of the national culture. Other brands, such as Walkers, Hovis and Innocent, also speak to consumers in a uniquely British tone. The marketing communication for all these brands relies on the use of local celebrities, local references and humour that may not translate well abroad.

When it comes to communication, rather than ownership, of a brand, making sure you take account of local culture is even more important because communication is bound up with culture. Millward Brown’s Link database, which contains consumer opinions on more than 50,000 ads globally, reveals of those ads that tested exceptionally well in one country, only one in five did so in another. And almost one in ten of those exceptional ads performed below average when tested in another country. Differences in values, references and humour rob these ads of their original efficacy.

Even though British consumers are relaxed about where a brand comes from, it is still critical that the brand communicates to them in a way that they understand and appreciate. This ability to adapt to local values and preferences is the secret to successful global brands. 

Nigel Hollis, Millward Brown executive vice-president and chief global analyst, contributed to this week’s Insight

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