Global Brands: A Matter of Time?

Going international with your brand can be like starting from scratch. Successful national brands establish their image over time, an image that relates to their local market. It’s impossible to introduce the locally successful brand to the international market without reassessing the brand’s platform.

If a brand achieves an ostensibly uniform identity all over the world, is it recognized by consumers from country to country in the same fashion? That is, would respondents to a market survey in Moscow identify the same key values they associate with the brand as the Sydney consumers would? Probably not, our ideas and perceptions being inextricably related to the culture with which we identify.

So what are the implications of this human fact for the Internet? A place where users anywhere in the world have the same access to the same information via the Net. Where any international brand’s web site will be subject to the simultaneous scrutiny of consumers from Norway to New Guinea.

There’s a Catch-22 at work here. Developing a marketing profile that speaks to the immediate community creates a specific relationship between consumers and the brand. The brand will possibly have a different identity from one country to the next. Burger King, for example, is known in Australia as Hungry Jack’s.

The catch is that localization limits that marketing strategy’s application to one market segment. It stands in the way of a brand’s access to the world’s demographic pool.

Marketers perceive a consumer preference for the same service, same experience, same product, same warranties all over the world. And venture capitalists would contend that brands can’t afford to be local anymore, that they must be global – with the same logo, same identity, same customer base and same product worldwide – from the day they are born. So where is the freedom to be local?

Yet, this rationale is itself limiting: Global service preference can only be held by people on the move. There are sedentary consumer groups to whom global uniformity means nothing.

So, can any truly international brands exist? Brands that stand for the same values worldwide? Coca-Cola boasts international recognition, but is its image perceived by all consumers in the same fashion? Not by a long shot.

Recognition is not the same as understanding. Ask Eastern European consumers what they perceive of the product, then go to the U.S.A. and ask the same question. The values attributed by each demographic to the brand will be different.

But Coca-Cola, born over a hundred years ago and raised in a webless world where nations could hardly claim to be connected, is not a brand that exists within the parameters of the true globalization argument.

MTV and CNN demonstrated that global communication was possible. But even such a well-defined segment as the MTV generation was very different from country to country. MTV recognized this fact, ascertaining that one station wasn’t enough for the world. The United Kingdom, Northern Europe, Asia, the U.S.A. and Argentina all needed their own version of MTV if the brand were to communicate effectively and have consumers worldwide buy into the MTV product and philosophy.

The MTV experience shows that global brands aren’t necessarily “global” just because they exist in most countries, using the same logo. A brand is truly global only when it has matured uniformly worldwide and offers the same message to its market internationally and simultaneously.

The next generation of brands – Yahoo, Amazon and eBay, for example – are characterized by being able to communicate with their users worldwide at the same time. These brands educated a new segment, activated a new need, and therefore had the opportunity to create a brand platform with global application. But true globalization is elusive. Yahoo was considered global until it entered Japan. This ostensibly global brand then had to adjust itself dramatically to survive in the Japanese market.

The fact is that human preferences cannot be the same everywhere. Right now, we are witnessing the first phase in a long adjustment process that will take decades to achieve, one that will see people’s needs and behaviors becoming alike across demographic boundaries. The dream of a truly global brand could yet become a reality.

The Internet has made worldwide brand building easier. But don’t let this fool you. Net users are human beings. They don’t suddenly adopt a worldwide preference by upgrading to version 2.0. Cultural change is needed to achieve this, and that takes time. The Internet may just offer us a chance to telescope that time, bringing global brand building closer than we thought.

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