Going global, Part 1: Brand identity in a global economy

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What’s the first thing that comes into your head when someone says “Mercedes”?

If you’re in Europe, I’ll guess that you think of a company that has a car, truck, or bus for every market niche. In the United States—where General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler own that positioning—Mercedes brings up images of high-end sport and luxury cars; its competitors are companies like Porsche and Rolls-Royce, not Chevrolet or Dodge. (Ironically, Chrysler was actually owned by Mercedes’ parent company, Daimler, from 1988-2007.) And in many other parts of the world, Mercedes is the workhorse of taxi, truck and bus fleets, supplying durable vehicles at affordable cost. In the Spanish-speaking world, Mercedes is also a popular female name, for which the car was named more than 100 years ago.

In short, the same brand has very different associations in different parts of the world.

Here’s an example from a completely different industry: natural breakfast cereals. To a shopper in the United Kingdom, Weetabix® is a well-known and diverse line of cereals: the regular kind that’s similar to shredded wheat…organic, crispy minis with chocolate, strawberries, peanut butter, or fruit and nuts…baked with golden syrup…chocolate (non-mini)…crunchy bran…and then variations made with different grains, such as Oatabix. There’s even an o-shaped imitation of Cheerios. But in the US, it’s unusual to see anything other than the basic biscuits.

What’s the point? It’s that large companies go after different markets, and market differently, in different parts of the world. In fact, smart companies segment much more closely than by country. Within 10 miles/16 kilometers of my house, the same supermarket chain has stores in four communities. Walking the aisles, you’d think they were different companies entirely. Two are geared toward the adventurous tastes of healthy-living folks in the nearby college towns, with a lot of natural products, exotic local fruits and vegetables, and so on. And one of those, in a more international community, has an Asian foods section that’s bigger than some Asian grocery stores. One of the others, in a heavily Hispanic neighborhood, has a product selection geared to Puerto Rican tastes. And the fourth, in a working-class city that hosts a large military base, is the land of packaged, bland convenience foods for a burger-and-pasta-salad crowd.

You’ll find examples of this kind of segmentation in industry after industry. Even something like book cover design will be startlingly different for the same book in different parts of the world.

If you read this column, you’re probably not a giant multinational company with resources to create different product variations all over the world. But these days, all of us are global businesses. As a solo marketing consultant and copywriter working from a farmhouse in the northeastern United States, I’ve not only served clients from all parts of my own country, but also all across Asia and Europe: Japan, Cyprus, Israel, England, France, Germany, Belgium, and elsewhere. And this column runs in Australia and Asia, as well as in the United States. If an international client comes to me to reach a market in the United States, that’s easy for me. But if that client wants to reach an audience in a different market, I have to find ways to put myself in the mindset of a potential customer who thinks very differently from me, and that can be a challenge.

For me, the way around this is to focus on the slices of the market that play to my core strengths. For instance, if a company wants to reach the green consumer, or market green products and services to either green or nongreen audiences, my subject knowledge is strong enough to make up for the cultural differences.

If you want to go into different markets, ask yourself questions like these:

• What do you offer that a customer can’t find at home already?
• How will you deal with shipping, customs, and tariff costs, and will you be able to compete after factoring those in?
• Who will sell and service your products in that country?
• How might a tweak in the product, packaging, or marketing make it more attractive in that market?
• How does entering this far-away market make the world better or address environmental and social problems?

Good luck! And if you need guidance on this journey, feel free to contact me.

Shel Horowitz, shelatgreenandprofitable.com, shows you how to “reach green, socially conscious consumers with marketing that has THEM calling YOU.” He writes the monthly Green And Profitable column and is the primary author of the award-winning book Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green (John Wiley & Sons).

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