Global brands and local culture

Global brands and local culture
Market Leader Winter 2009

A Survey Conducted by Millward Brown for The Global Brand in 2008, helps illustrate the basic drivers of brand success across countries and cultures. The survey was conducted in eight countries (from west to east): the United States, Mexico, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, India and China.

In each country, we compared two global brands to two local brands in each of five categories: cars, beer, fast food, shampoo/conditioners and soft drinks. In total, we interviewed 3,307 people about 91 different brands.

The global brands included in our survey were stronger than the local ones; they were more often considered for purchase and received higher scores on almost all statements, including 'setting the trends', being 'very easy to recognize' and having 'very distinctive identities'. In general, our analysis suggests that global brands owe their strength to their reliance on the basics of brand-building.

Local brands, not surprisingly, scored far higher on being seen as part of the national culture, an attribute that is a driver of purchase intent for all brands, both global and local. So that while local brands may lack the business acumen and deep pockets of the multinational brands brands, they draw strength from their home-field advantage.

The lesson here for multinational companies (MNCs) is the importance of embedding the brand in the local culture, and in this regard two global brands stand out. Ironically these are two of the most iconic American brands – Coca-Cola and McDonald's. Both brands were held in high esteem, and were endorsed by a significant proportion of people, in countries other than the United States, as being part of their own national cultures. If these two giants of US culture can embed themselves locally, any brand in any sector should be able to gain this kind of advantage.

We identified a couple of factors (beyond aspiration for the American lifestyle) that made this possible.

The first is adaptation (of both product and communication). Both brands adapted their product offerings appropriately and invested heavily in locally inspired communication and activation to complement their global positioning. Obviously, time in the market gives companies a considerable advantage. Coke and McDonald's, among others, have had plenty of time to adapt. So newcomers have to try especially hard to understand the nature of beliefs and practices in the sector they are entering so that they begin their presence in the market by being closely tuned to the local culture.


The traditional assumption that all countries were different was driven largely by the fact that entrants were in fmcg – food, drink, toiletries, etc. – where cultural differences were very different. However, in recent years other sectors have expanded globally, finding common shared needs and relatively homogeneous target audiences. Technology and healthcare products, as well as genuinely new innovations that effectively create new categories, are more likely to be accepted without adaptation, either because fundamental needs are the same or because there are no entrenched habits to be overcome.

Companies such as IBM, Cisco and Accenture deal with an upscale, welleducated and relatively homogeneous group of customers, many of whom have been educated in North America or western Europe, or who travel there on a regular basis. These customers are effectively united around the culture of international business. They share similar needs, and their familiarity with the cultures of different countries makes them open to buying foreign brands.

Mass-market brands, on the other hand, face the reality that the mass market can still be very different from country to country. To succeed, they must create strong ties with consumers who may have different income levels, needs, desires and habits. The challenges multiply with every new country they enter. Socioeconomic differences may be readily apparent and easy to anticipate, but often cultural differences are subtle and more difficult to detect.

For example, P&G expected that the fabric refresher Febreze would do well in Japan, because the Japanese are highly sensitive to odors, but initial research results were disappointing. A positive response from a small minority of respondents encouraged P&G to try again. In an interview with Strategy and Business, A.G. Lafley recalled that, 'The P&G team changed the viscosity of the product. They changed the fragrance from high profile to a very low profile scent. They changed the bottle to a much more delicate design that more Japanese people felt comfortable having visible in their homes. They changed the spray pattern to a mist. They changed everything but the core technology of the product, and it became a phenomenal success in Japan.'


While some brands need to adapt basic product offerings more than others, all product and service brands face the challenge of adapting their communications to work well in different cultures. Even countries that share a common language and have a similar socioeconomic standing, such as the US and the UK, are divided by cultural reference points, values, humour, customs and idioms.

A recent examination of Millward Brown's Link database, which contains consumer opinions on more than 50,000 ads globally, demonstrates that few ads can transcend cultural boundaries. We looked at ads that tested exceptionally well in one country and found that only a small minority did well outside their own country and, indeed, a majority of these exceptional ads performed poorly in another country.

An international campaign by Apple, in which the Mac is personified as cool and hip, in contrast with a nerdy PC, provides a case in point. The US ads draw their success from target audience familiarity with the actors who portray the two brands. New versions of the US ads were created for Japan and the UK.

Direct comparison advertising does not play well in Japan because it is considered rude to brag about one's strengths. Instead, two local comedians focus attention on differences between the two brands' use at work and home. The UK versions featured British sit-com actors David Mitchell and Robert Webb reprising their respective roles in 'Peep Show.' The dialogue followed the original US scripts closely but was translated into colloquial English. More importantly, the UK ads sought to replicate the strong implicit communication of the originals through the differing personalities of the two TV show characters.

So, using the same ad campaign across borders may offer cost efficiencies, but the savings realised may not outweigh the benefit offered by local engagement. Indeed, creating locally targeted communication may be an excellent way for a brand entering a market to display its local credentials at the outset.

That said, it should be noted that exceptional ads do travel better than average ones: 60% of exceptional ads score well in another country compared to less than one in five for average performers.


Savvy global marketers know that it's easier for a communication campaign to travel when it taps in to a human motivation or interest that is shared across cultures. By leveraging an essential aspect of human nature that is common to people around the world, brands can often avoid getting boxed in by cultural differences.

A good example is Johnnie Walker, the IPA Effectiveness Awards Grand Prix winner. As a result of extensive qualitative research, Johnnie Walker identified the idea of 'progress' as a universally powerful expression of masculine success in the 21st century. The 'Keep Walking' campaign has been very successful in helping to reverse the brand's downward trend and boost sales by 48% between 1999 and 2007.

And if continued achievement is the preoccupation of the mature male, then a fascination with the opposite sex typifies that of many younger ones. Axe/Lynx has successfully tapped in to this motivation, to become one of the strongest personal care brands in the world.

The experience of Dove, by contrast, would suggest that the selfdetermination expressed by men in the Johnnie Walker campaign is not as yet seen as appropriate to women outside western markets. Dove's Campaign for 'Real Beauty', lauded in the West, is reported to have fallen on deaf ears in Asia, where more traditional ideas of feminine beauty still reign supreme. Dove has now taken a new approach in China, launching a Chinese version of Ugly Betty, known in America from the ABC-TV comedy but originating from a Colombian telenovela. The script of Ugly Wudi, as the show is called on China's Hunan Satellite Television, is built around the Dove brand and documents Lin Wudi's transformation from ugly duckling to swan.


The rise of multinational media corporations and the internet has supposedly led to the globalisation of popular culture. But while it is true that movies, music and sports now find audiences far beyond their country of origin, their appeal is still fragmented. Brands must often stitch together a patchwork of sponsorships in order to generate global appeal.

Gillette's campaign for its Fusion razor brand is a case in point. The campaign features Tiger Woods, Roger Federer and Thierry Henry in advertising and on the brand's website in most countries. But like Gillette's blade count strategy, three is not enough. In order to achieve global appeal, the brand needs to team up with additional personalities. In Argentina, it is the soccer player Messi; in Brazil, it is Kaká; in South Africa, Bryan Habana (a rugby union player). Like so many things that global marketers must deal with, sport is not necessarily universal. National and team allegiance may undermine even the best global strategy.

Some campaigns attempt to transcend culture by creating a unique and imaginative world around the brand. Coca-Cola's 'Happiness Factory' presents a fantasy world to great effect. By embodying the concept of the brand's core strategy of spreading joy into a magical world where fantastic creatures fill each bottle of Coke with love, the campaign evades cultural pitfalls. The ads are enthralling and accepted on their own terms. But simply creating a fantasy is not guaranteed to work equally well everywhere. Care still needs to be taken to avoid any reference points, iconography or turns of phrase that are not shared across cultures.

Last, but not least, if your brand possesses a well-differentiated functional benefit that meets a common need, then it may be best to simply focus on that benefit, particularly when the problem to be solved is the cause of much angst. For example, Nicorette promises to help smokers quit smoking. The brand's 'Craving Man' campaign, which featured a 2½ metre cigarette with arms, legs and a face, proclaimed 'Beat cigarettes one at a time. You're twice as likely to succeed with Nicorette.' From 2000 to 2004, based largely on the success of the campaign, Nicorette grew from $194 million to $295 million in sales, and established itself as the clear market leader in its category.


Cultural differences exist within countries as well as across national borders. For example, marketers in the US acknowledge the need to tailor marketing communication to Hispanics and African-Americans, and marketers in the UK may still create tailored campaigns aimed at Welsh, Scottish and English consumers. The need to recognise regional cultural differences becomes even more important in countries like China and India, which encompass a rich diversity of cultures and languages. In these countries, launching a brand in a new city can present the same types of challenge as launching in a different country.

Further, appreciation and understanding of marketing also differ from region to region. Middle-income consumers living in Shanghai or Delhi have had time to grow accustomed to brands and marketing. They look for more than basic product claims before they buy. Not so in rural areas, where people actively seek out advertising as a source of information.


MNCs, face a dilemma. In order to compete most effectively with local brands they must establish a local identity and, in many areas of consumption, individual cultures are still quite different. At the same time, global brand strategies increasingly demand that the brand be communicated similarly in all markets. This is a delicate balancing act, which requires attention to product formulation but most of all to the way the brand communicates its brand idea to each individual local audience – through a single-minded product focus, or through reflecting local humour and/or customs and/or personalities, or adapting ideas based on deep human needs.


Nigel Hollis is Executive Vice President and Chief Global Analyst at Millward Brown.

[email protected]