Being perceived as local: the new ideal of global brands?

A curious turnaround appears to be taking place. In multinationals the world over, CEOs are proudly producing figures proving that their brand is perceived as ‘local’. In fact, brands that have been very successfully ‘globalised’ for some time are now perceived as local brands, a phenomenon that is just as true for Nivea and Kodak as it is for brands of medication (Aspro and Rennies), washing powder (Ariel and Omo) and even Shell, which the Swedes firmly believe to be their national brand.

Is this desire to appear local a concession to fashion, a concession to the World Social Forums against capitalist globalisation, or does it reflect a deeper awareness?

It should first of all be pointed out that this trend does not affect all brands, only those that want to be accessible, popular brands reaching a wide public in countries throughout the world. By definition, ‘hightech’ is not local – if it is, it is perceived as ‘low-tech’. It is technology that unites the world, which is the essential factor of globalization and the attendant standardisation, by creating the same desire for a particular piece or pieces of new equipment in consumers the world over.

Thus, the big technological brands are clearly perceived as global, a perception that invests them with additional perceived quality and prestige. Similarly, ‘high-touch’ brands are also global – their customers are, in part, buying a value based on the idea that, if they travelled to Paris, New York or Tokyo, they would find exactly the same product.

This is why luxury goods and top-of-the-range cosmetics do not try to appear local – their added value stems from their global image and their foreign origins. Finally, this basic trend does not affect brands whose added value stems from their association with a particular country. For example, Coca-Cola and Levi’s are universal symbols of the United States, while Lacoste symbolises French sporting elegance. Today, young consumers worldwide, who have grown up with mixed cultures, tend to favour brands with a strong national identity which allow them to experiment with their own particular identity.

However, the search for popular success on the world market forces companies to recognise that being close to consumers is a key factor of this success. L’Oréal was quick to realise this and, within its very diverse brand portfolio, the name of the typically French brand Laboratoires Garnier was changed to Garnier in 2001. The change of name was not accidental – it was designed to facilitate the brand’s acceptance by countries on all five continents.

In spite of a ‘brand identity’ platform that is the same in all countries, Garnier readily adapts its products and ingredients to suit local hair and skin types, as well as adapting its packaging to suit local practices (large formats in Portugal, tiny formats in Korea) and its advertising (using local models) to appeal to local consumers. This strategy is therefore the direct opposite of that used by the group’s top-of-the-range brand Lancôme, which is extremely globalised in all aspects of its marketing mix. Thus, the higher up the range the brand, the less it has to adapt.

If brands are seeking to maximise their integration within a country, it is because companies have realised that the global brand was above all a consequence of the pursuit of economies of scale and the competitive advantage they provide. Consumers have never been known to ask for global brands. There is, therefore, a difference between being a global brand that is represented on all continents because it meets a universal need, and proclaiming a global brand from the rooftops.

Furthermore, our recent research has shown that the key asset of local brands is confidence, and in these times of doubt, food scandals and capitalist crises (like Enron), the confidence factor is a distinct advantage.

This is why groups like Danone say they want to be ‘a local global company’, but in Danone’s case the brand is actually – and legally – a local brand in several countries.

Being relevant before being global?

The global brand results from a deliberate will to rationalise its management and less from a demand from the market. The typical consumer does not buy a global brand per se, but on the contrary, individualistic brands that correspond exactly to his/her specific needs. Even when it is global, the brand is bought in an individualistic fashion. The buyer of Mr Clean in France compares it to Ajax and to other local competing brands: he/she has no notion of the existence of Mr Clean in another country, with the same positioning and the same promise of shine.

The buyer is sensitive to the latter and to the personality of the brand, just like the buyers of Mr Clean in these other countries. Thus, when in several countries, groups of buyers appear sensitive to the same advantages and expect the same features, there is an opportunity for a global brand.

We should speak here of ‘coincidence of globalism’, referring to the fact that globalism expresses a corporate view, whereas at the consumer’s level in each country, in spite of so-called similar needs, their choice remains individualistic and egocentric (Buzzell and Quelch, 1988). The brand must therefore often be a chameleon and seem ‘just like back home’.

This does not apply to international high-tech, service, luxury or alcoholic beverage brands. But Kodak and Philips are considered French by a third of the French population, as Bic is thought to be an American brand in the USA.

Integration factors

How does a company speed up perceived integration and acquire the desired level of assimilation in a country? This is an issue that even involves high-tech companies if they do not want to be perceived as cold, distant and indifferent to public concerns, simply content to sell and therefore a symbol of the predatory multinationals. The first thing is to tune into local needs and then implement a local marketing campaign – on the streets, in sports stadia, as part of local life.

Media advertising should be balanced by direct contact and involvement in a country’s everyday life. It was not by chance that Garnier launched its new Fructis Style product on, among other things, more than 100 buses in each country – buses that would travel back and forth across towns and cities, in direct contact with the general public.

Last but not least, and bearing in mind that the brand and company are one and the same thing in the eyes of the general public, it is a distinct advantage to have factories and produce the product in the countries in question. This not only helps the brand to put down roots but also increases its status, since it provides employment. If the company also has a well-developed social policy, people will talk about it and it will gain respect and confidence.

Far from behaving like a coloniser or a predator, the brand will be seen as seeking to share its success. The local publicity given to the social initiatives of Danone (the company) in Mexico greatly helped to speed up the brand’s assimilation in this key country. As can be seen, in the age of the responsible and ethical brand, companies no longer hide behind their brands (quite the opposite, in fact) in their penetration of foreign markets.

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