Web Site Branding: Go Global or Stay Local?

Question: is Rover a British, German, or American automobile brand? Answer: none of the above, and all of the above. It’s Chinese, since the Nanjing Automobile Group acquired the assets of British carmaker MG Rover Group last year for about $100 million. It’s also German, since BMW acquired rights to several Rover brands when it took over the Rover Group in 1994. And it’s American, since Ford acquired Land Rover in 2000 from BMW.

The Rover example clearly signals that cultural links between brands and the countries that produced them are in jeopardy. Consider IBM’s ThinkPad and Miller Lite. These two American brand icons are owned by the Chinese and South Africans, respectively. The Swiss Toblerone is no longer Swiss. In fact, the heritage of many brands is changing shape as ownership alters across national borders.

Does the notion that ThinkPad and Rover are Chinese cause you to rethink your ideas about the brands’ quality and authenticity? Would you think twice about buying a Toblerone because it no longer comes from the land of chocolate? Probably not.

Country of origin has a strong influence on a brand during its birth and childhood. Yet once the country image has been embedded into the brand’s personality, fashioning its identity and influencing consumers’ perceptions, it seems to leave its stamp on the brand for good. At least, the numbers available from brands that have changed nationality indicate this is so.

A country’s leveraging power in brand-building seems most effective at the beginning of the brand story. As the brand matures, it gathers other material that contributes to its identity: reputation, financial record, management personalities, and so on are all likely to help the brand’s image alter in later life.

What does this mean for your brand? Should you leverage your native country as a branding statement? And if so, how? The path is neither easy nor necessarily all good.

Many companies have found great value in fostering an association with a brand’s nationality. The approach was capitalized on by the Swiss who, almost a century ago, discovered that by uniting their nationhood with an industry that was so much a part of the visitor’s perception of Switzerland, both Switzerland and that industry would profit from their mutually compatible reputations. The industry was the chocolate industry.

Switzerland was well known for its hundreds of small chocolatiers, all of whom competed fiercely against each other. Finally, the world’s first country brand board, which still exists, was formed with the sole purpose of supervising the use of the “Made in Switzerland” tagline and the Swiss flag. Today, no one can adopt “Made in Switzerland” without having strong links to the country. And the board’s quality control seems to be working.

As I often joke, if you had to choose between two identical cars with the same price, but one was built in Turkey and the other in Switzerland, which would you choose? Most of us would go for the Swiss version, with the Swiss’ reputation for precision engineering. By choosing the Swiss car, you prove country of origin as a branding statement has influence.

But there’s a down side. Danish orange juice brand Sun Top was an enormous success in the Middle East. The brand based its entire identity on being Danish. Because of its great success, the company was happily bought by local owners in Saudi Arabia. But then a controversial cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad appeared in a Danish newspaper. In consumers’ mind, Sun Top was so strongly associated with Denmark that its reputation became tarnished in the Middle East along with that of Denmark. The crisis resulted in a total halt on sales, and the company is now struggling to survive.

But how does this bear on your own brand’s Web site? Should it remain an emanation from anywhere, or should it claim a national identity? That depends. If you sell products or services that are strongly associated with your country, then share your brand’s nationality. If you sell food or clothes from France or Italy, let your brand’s French or Italian flavor ring through to the audience. If you sell technology services or promote innovation, the fact that you’re from the U.S., Japan, or Germany could add strength to your brand’s and site’s image. Then again, if nationality doesn’t add positively to your brand’s value proposition, give it a low profile.

Try the two-car test on your product. If someone had to choose between two identical products, one of them being yours, would its nationality encourage or discourage the person to select your brand? If it would make no difference, why share your country of origin? Remember, your audience is international and not every country is in everyone’s good graces all the time.

So before you plaster your nation’s flag all over your site, ask yourself if it would add emotional value to your product or service. Beware, your conclusion itself may be emotional, despite the fact that we live in a supposedly global community.

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