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Busting the 3 Key Myths of Global Branding

Tiny plastic salesman figure on a world map

Whether you are planning on entering a new market with your brand or trying to improve your brand’s performance in an existing market, there are three common myths that may be throttling your success.

In this article, I’ll define these three myths and why they are problematic. Then I’ll conclude with a common solution to address all three.

Myth 1: Success can be transplanted

This myth exists as a tacit assumption held by many domestic marketers looking to expand abroad. It is not always articulated but is revealed in their cookie-cutter approach to foreign markets. They strive to shoe-horn the domestic strategy into the foreign market and make it fit with as little modification as possible.

The myth promises that success in the home market can be duplicated in all other markets by simply employing the same strategy and tactics. As those smitten with this myth see it, the merits of the domestic approach have already been proven by the market, so “Why re-invent the wheel?”

This myth has strong appeal. It seems to lower costs, save time, and reduce risk all at once. It’s easy to understand why so many managers want to believe this narrative and are so reluctant to entertain other realities.

However, for this approach to work, every market would need to be a carbon-copy of the brand’s domestic market. This is never the case. Even in neighboring markets that may appear very similar there are always differences, some of which will need to be addressed with both marketing strategy and tactics.

One example of this was when the US retailer Target attempted to transplant its US success into neighboring Canada. Target’s management seemed unwilling to even look for the differences between the markets, much less adapt to them. In the end, Target exited Canada in defeat after 14 months and USD 5.5 billion in losses.

As one market analyst put it, “Target failed to entice shoppers in Canada, a country of 36 million people with a way of life similar to Americans’ but with habits different enough to make it a potential minefield for US retailers.”

Myth 2: Translation is the biggest marketing challenge

The most obvious difference between a product launch in Boston vs. Bologna is language.

Search the internet for cross-cultural marketing blunders and you will find dozens of language-related gaffes. For example, HSBC Bank’s 2009 'Assume Nothing' campaign was translated to “Do Nothing” in many of its non-English speaking markets.

The Swedish brand Electrolux launched its vacuum in the US with the slogan “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux”, apparently unaware of US slang.

The list goes on.

Although these types of amusing anecdotes receive the most attention, they are relatively easy to prevent and correct. Mastery of the local language is simply table stakes for entering any foreign markets. Although essential, it conveys no more competitive advantage abroad than it does at home.

Fixating on translation when planning an expansion into foreign markets can blind you to more critical success factors like gaining insights into buyers, competitors, and market dynamics. You will need deep insight into all three so you can adapt your strategy and marketing mix to the local buyers. That’s how brands maximize their advantage and succeed.

Viewed from this perspective, getting the language right is the least of your worries.

An over-emphasis on translation is also a symptom of a deeper problem related to Myth 1 above. That is, the misconception that buyers of a certain product are all pretty much the same with the exception of how they communicate. If brand success in foreign markets came down to communication alone, then this would be a valid observation. But, as mentioned, communication is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to succeeding in foreign markets.

Myth 3: Regions can be treated like markets

The essence of good marketing is to start with the buyer and then work your way out from that center point. This is as true when building brands domestically as abroad.

The clearer you can see the buyer and adopt their perspective when developing your strategy, the more successful you will be.

This is difficult to do in your home market and only gets more difficult when you are marketing to people who do not share your cultural contexts, social and business norms, market pressures, or language. Those are some of the challenges you will need to manage when developing your brand in foreign markets.

One key to doing that well is to be careful how you define “market.”

Economists are lucky in this regard. They can slice and dice the world into whatever segments they like. The same goes for sales territories. Marketers don’t have this luxury.

My company is often asked to develop a strategy for the “European Market,” or the “Asian Market” or the “EMEAI (Europe, The Middle East, Africa and India) Market.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve never met anyone who self-identifies as EMEAI-ian. In fact, I don’t know many people who live in Europe or Asia who self-identify under those monikers either. They are more likely to self-identify as, for example, French or Vietnamese — or even more likely as a Parisian or Saigonese.

If good marketing starts by focusing on the buyer and working our way out, we must define our markets around our buyers.

That’s why, from a marketing perspective, there is no such thing as the “European Market.” Europe consists of 50 sovereign states and is comprised of 87 distinct ethnic groups who together speak over 100 different languages. Asia is even more diverse.

To create marketing strategies and tactics to cover regions such as these means glossing over the nuances that define market segments. In that case, the best you can hope for is a generic marketing strategy. Brands that try to appeal to multiple segments artificially clumped together in this manner usually wind up appealing to no one.

This is not to say that nondescript brands cannot generate sales or brand equity. They can, but at great cost to their owners. That’s because they require massive media budgets to drive their generic message into the minds of consumers through sheer rote. For that kind of money, why not invest in proper market research and segmentation to create a brand people actually want to engage with?

Busting these myths

These myths impede brand growth abroad. If they are held in your organization, they will make it difficult to get the budget, time, and support you will need to succeed.

That’s why succeeding in foreign markets starts at home by getting your team on the same page about international growth and what it takes to free yourselves from the limitations that these myths impose.

Having done that, the rest is fairly straightforward. Simply segment in a buyer-centric manner, then treat each market segment as a unique case with regard to

  1. Buyer wants, needs, and perceptions
  2. Competitive forces
  3. Market dynamics

Assume that these three variables will be unique for each of your brand’s markets. This approach will help you explore markets with fresh eyes to reveal opportunities and threats that would otherwise go unnoticed.