Fund Mentalism
The Invisible Web

The Global Brand and Fuzzy Branding

What is a brand

A few days ago a nice publicist sent me a copy of The GLOBAL BRAND by Nigel Hollis, Chief Global Analyst at Millward Brown.

I was looking through the first few pages and there, to my vainglorious joy and utter surprise, was a quote from TIGS about the nature of brands as socially constructed ideas.

Awesome, I thought, especially the bit about oversimplifying, I so rarely get accused of that - I wonder what the rest is about.

The gist of it is about how to manage global brands, with all the inherent difficulties of creating an idea that works amongst very different, disparate, distinct groups.

So I sent Nigel some questions about it and he kindly sent some replies.

Here's what he said:

How does ethnographic context affect the nature of communication needed?

Ethnographic context has a critical influence on the nature of successful brand communication. Communication is integrally bound up with culture — our collective needs, beliefs and values — and culture still differs dramatically from one social group to the next.

At the risk of turning off every agency planner reading this, let me quote a couple of stats from Millward Brown's Link pretest database. An analysis of the TV ads that tested exceptionally well in one country found that only one in five did so in another. Nearly 1 in 10 tested badly.

Why? Because social mores, references and humor differ from one country to the next. We can't assume that what worked well in one country will work well in another.

How can a single brand appeal to diverse groups around the world that may differ in terms of attitudes or ethnicity?

I think the real question is, should a brand try to appeal to such disparate groups? Strong, successful brands need to stand for something. A brand that tries to appeal to different groups runs the risk of diluting the clarity of its positioning.

But really, it depends on your brand, category and context. How important is it that your brand is understood the same way in different countries? Consider Bournvita, the malted chocolate beverage. In the U.K., it is thought to give you a good night's sleep, while in Nigeria it substitutes for Viagra, and in India it makes your kids smart.

Is it a bad thing for the brand to be viewed differently in these different countries? I doubt it — although I might not recommend the UK positioning, since the brand has been discontinued there and growth in emerging markets was reported to be 47% in 2007.

On the other hand, it would be a problem for a brand that has international business clients, such as Accenture, to show a different face to those clients in each country they visited.

You cite McDonald's as an example of a company that balances a global brand identity with adapting to local tastes. How has McDonald's achieved this?

McDonald's boasts that it serves 50 million people every day at 31,900 locations in 118 countries. They couldn't do that without a very strong business model, and that's the foundation on which any strong brand is built.

McDonald's continues to invest in efficient systems and training to deliver on the promise of fast food that's enjoyable and a good value. Once the system is set up in a country, the chain can deliver a Big Mac, Chicken Maharaja Mac or a McTurco quickly and cheaply. Nor is McDonald's shy about experimenting with menu items, store design and communications to see what will work best.


Understanding local culture requires research, and you recommend that companies implement a global research program. What does this involve, and what are some of the challenges that researchers face?

I think a global research program is necessary when there is a need to compare performance across countries and cultures. Such comparisons would be called for in areas like brand equity research, tracking, and pretesting.

You need to be able to assess on a like-for-like basis whether a brand is strong or weak, whether attitudes are improving in all markets or not, or whether an ad will work well elsewhere. But when it comes to exploratory research, where the objective is understanding the local mindset, there can be a lot more leeway in the approach taken.

Researchers face two big issues in implementing global programs. First is the need to make comparisons that allow for cultural differences in answering questions, because, people respond to words and scales differently from country to country.

For example, "good" to the British equates to "excellent" among Mexicans. We need to make sure cross-country comparisons take those differences into account.

The second issue is the need to set aside prejudices and habitual ways of viewing the world. Researchers need to be aware that their assessment of results is heavily influenced by our own understanding and experience.

I have posted more information on how to conduct successful global research programs here.

Many companies don't have the time or the resources to tailor brands to individual countries and cultures. How can these companies find a balance between adapting to local needs and maintaining business efficiency?

This question gets asked a lot. The trouble is, it assumes that companies should do something even if they lack the resources to do it well.

First things first — you have to win locally before you can leverage efficiencies of scale. If your brand needs to be tailored, but you don't have the time or money to do it effectively, then don't do it.

In the long run, you will save a ton of money that would otherwise be wasted on products and services no one wants or communication that is off target. Focus on the markets where your product can succeed without adaptation.

So how do you know if you need to adapt your brand? Do your research. It's cheap by comparison to a failed launch. Find out what people really want, identify how to disrupt the existing status quo, and then test your execution – product, positioning and communication - against that objective.

The challenge comes when test results look just OK rather than great or terrible. In these cases, you have to give the benefit of the doubt to a global approach; otherwise you will lose all hope of retaining business efficiency.

Thanks Nigel! I shall read the rest in due course and let you know how it goes.

It occurs to me that there might be two approaches to global brands. Clarity, based on some simple human truth and that or something we'll call fuzzy branding.

Really global brands, Hello Kitty or Nike for example, as Rob Walker points out in Buying In, are undefined: they exploit vague meaning structures to encourage polysemous readings, which allows them to mean different things to different people in different contexts, as Nigel suggests about Bournvita above.

A bit like how Virginia Woolf claimed to handle symbolism as a nominally post-symbolist writer:

I can't manage symbolism except in this vague, generalised way. Whether it's right or wrong I don't know, but directly I'm told what a thing means, it becomes hateful to me.

Which seems like a useful guide when creating brand communication content.

Don't tell me what it means.

Give me some symbols.