Thomas Friedman wrote in his modern classic “The World is Flat,” about how the Internet has paved the way for a fluid cultural exchange that defies borders. As a result, young people chat with friends from other parts of the world about common interests such as manga and parkour. Many would argue then that nationalities matter less today and that brands should downplay where they come from. Should brands then have a home country, and how should they behave when they travel?
Let’s start by remembering that globalization is only part of what seems to be a nice balancing act in how people see themselves and how they interact with others. As technology brings us closer, there are other things that keep us rooted and local including business, politics and the steady and powerful tug of family and community. We live in two worlds, the ether world of global integration and the physical world that is home. Brands need to reach that perfect balance; they must be both worldly and rooted, depending on the when and where.
Country brands, or the set of associations that people have regarding a country and its also, also impact product brands from those countries as they seek to develop their brand personality. Country brands and product brands are happiest together when the product represents a category that the country is best known for around the world. For instance, Mexican liquor and tourism brands will naturally gravitate to a Mexican cultural and lifestyle heritage known the world over. A Mexican software company, however, will be more reluctant to trump its Mexican credentials to skeptic markets that are just not used to “hi-tech Mex”. As brands become more global they can choose their cultural identity, or avatars; the following are some tips.
The first cultural question a brand must answer when deciding its cultural DNA, besides what the product means for its consumer, is how tied is this meaning to the brand’s country of origin. This question will field two different types of brands: the proud national and the cosmopolitan.
The “proud national” is a brand that trumps its attributes along with its country’s undisputed excellence in this category. French Champagnes are examples of this type of brand, extolling France’s unique savoir-faire as well as the specific region that gives the product its name. This type of brand, where the land and country are the biggest equity, needs to invest jointly with other entities such as tourism and trade boards to make the country brand stronger. “Proud national” brands are popular to the growing demand for authentic exotic products as well as local and environmentally safe goods.
The second type of brand, the cosmopolitan, is the most universal and what more global brands should aspire to be. This type of brand may draw inspiration from its country of origin while still being very open to the rest of world. This is a particular challenge for many American brands such as McDonald’s that need to nip negative cultural perceptions through locally sensitive strategies including product versioning, relevant advertising, and involvement in community affairs. A successful Cosmopolitan has been Toyota which has nicely balanced its Japanese heritage while adopting an American sense of community, mainly fueled by job creation in North American plants.
Cosmopolitan brands are driven by the growing base of bicultural and global consumers who want to tap into brand’s culture while seeing their own culture reflected. Cosmopolitan brands are not afraid to behave like the locals, allowing for unique manifestations of their brand. These types of brands should not fear that their commercials look different, or if they have taglines in different languages, as long as they carry the consistency of feeling.
Cosmopolitan brands should behave like sophisticated travelers. They study their markets beforehand and try to establish connections with those that know the unique ways of the land. They also try to learn as much of the language and the culture before their trip. And while not giving up who they are, they adapt to local customs. A brand that acts like a well-behaved guest, will always find a home.
By Roberto Ramos
President + CEO / partner