Filippo Vidal, Brand Strategist and Director from FutureBrand São Paulo discusses what makes a brand "world proof".
I'm from Generation X, those born between 1965 and 1980 that were present during events that marked the era, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. I belong to the generation that was influenced by the boom of consumerism in the 80s and 90s. I was born in Italy, where I lived for the first 25 years of my life, strongly affected by the popularisation of TV and the consolidation of modern capitalism. In these two decades, consumption became a synonym for high social status – and a phenomenon that bordered on compulsion.
It was also during this period that brands gained weight and impetus in popular culture, bringing all kinds of discourses to their audiences (including those inconceivable today) and not being capable of even superficially broaching themes such as sustainability and diversity, those in which current society is very engaged (thankfully!). Brands such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Marlboro, Kodak, Levi’s, Swatch, Casio, Nike and many others have become icons of popular culture.
These brands created attitudinal references that were converted into global lifestyle symbols, in many cases accelerated by the music, entertainment and fashion universe.
In a way, I can say that I grew up together with these brands and it was in this way that I developed a passion for branding. To work with brands – as I do today – is a deep source of personal realisation.
In the 80s and 90s a particular fact caught my attention. Many brands could bring the value of storytelling so all-encompassing that they were able to connect with the populations of countries with diametrically opposed cultures. It is these brands we call global: those whose positioning, communication strategy, personality, appearance and essence are the same, independently of the country. Favoured by global media, the emergence of the internet and the free circulation of capital resources, global brands achieved a competitive advantage via large scale economies and unified strategies. They took people to new universes and cultures previously inaccessible. They consolidated themselves as inarguable expressions of those times.
In spite of this, global brands have always had to adapt to the context of the country in which they were inserted. For example, where Honda signifies quality and reliability in the United States; in Japan, where quality is an attribute of the majority of cars offered in the local market, the brand represents speed, youth and energy. Although the Italian brand Ferrero is considered a corporate brand of premium chocolate in Latin America, in some European countries, such as Italy itself, it is perceived as a common chocolate brand, present in the majority of Italian family homes. These differences of context impact so significantly on the strategies for international branding that, in some cases, the brands that enter new countries are forced to alter or adjust even their names. Not everyone is aware that the brand Danone is called Dannon in the USA, to facilitate pronunciation in English. The brand KFC is PFK in Canada, from the French “Poulet Frit Kentucky”.
However, in the last few years, social phenomena such as the global economic crisis, the digital revolution and the increase of our access to information, have drastically altered our relationship with consumption and with the brands themselves. Even the global ones. It's only necessary to reflect on the impact the crisis of 2008 had on the mindset of consumers. The scale of priorities changed, and brands needed to adapt to this new reality, fast. The confectionery segment, for example, was one of those that suffered the most, shifting from an impulse buy to a conscious purchase, principally due to the new food consumption profile more focused on healthy living.
At this moment, the necessity for brands to render their approaches more flexible was exponentially accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which took the world on a new era of change. In this way, we saw the return of themes such as the ethnocentrism of the consumer, the patriotism, the restoration of local identities and the emergence of new dynamics that put the power of global brands in check.
In a world that went from VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) to BANI (Brittle, Anxious, Nonlinear and Incomprehensible) and that found itself dominated by economic instability, the deepening of social differences and by the leadership crisis of the institutions that were always safe havens for people, becoming a global brand is a challenge. Here we are talking about uniting characteristics that make it possible to be “world proof”.
The truth is that the brands that provide standard global approaches don’t work the way they used to in every market. People, more than ever, want authentic brands that know how to create dialogue, that understand the local community dynamics and that tell stories that connect them to each person in an almost intimate manner.
In these times, therefore, to gain relevance, brands need to fulfil three simultaneous roles in people's lives:
- They need to be a safe haven, bringing emotional comfort. In times of uncertainty and difficulty, people seek to connect with whoever offers humanised experiences. It’s only necessary to think of Netflix, who when the pandemic exploded in 2020 gained 10 million new subscriptions globally.
- They need to enrich people's lives, consistently bringing more omnichannel experiences that add value during their travels. According to a study from Invesp in 2021, the client retention rate of companies with on and off engagement strategies is 89% compared with a client retention rate of 33% for companies with low omnichannel engagement.
- In conclusion, in an era in which mobility became one of the main challenges, brands must be capable of breaking geographic barriers, transporting people to universes of inspiration and experience.
So, what can be done? Has breaking geographic barriers become a privilege exclusive to brands that were doing this before recent events altered world dynamics? Is it too late for those that came after?
Of course not.
I recognise that, yes, the challenge to internationalise a brand has become one of the greatest in branding, however at the same time I know that to work with brands means to work with truths and, in my experience, the truth of the brand is, and will always be the most integral part.
What I would like to emphasise is that the brand purpose should be the centre of everything that the brand does. Why the brand exists and how it desires to make a difference in the world cannot vary depending on the country in which it finds itself. Just think of the brand Ferrero that I mentioned above. Despite the business approach and perception varying according to the country, the purpose of Ferrero is always the same: bring consumers iconic, inimitable treats and chocolates of high quality.
When we think to internationalise our brand, we need to be loyal to its essence. This means to have a broad purpose and values and to locally adapt or create our experience. That is: the purpose and the values need to be immutable, while the more extrinsic attributes, such as the personality of the brand and its benefits, should adapt themselves to the local scenario.
An inspiring example of this is the project that I led together with the confectionery brand Fini to create a global corporate brand - The Fini Company. Incorporating seven international subsidiaries and two factories – one in Spain and one in Brazil – The Fini Company connects its collaborators through its purpose to "invent happiness”. At the same time, it’s capable of preserving the peculiarities of business strategy in each local market. Soon after the launch of the global brand, Andrea Köhler, executive Marketing manager Brazil, affirmed: “Today all, from Spain to Brazil, are part of The Fini Company with huge pride in this new brand and its values. Now all we need to do is continue inventing happiness more each day!"
If we consider that purpose continues to be a central element for a brand that seeks to internationalise, within the realms of the theme of sustainability, this becomes even more evident. Isabel Sobral, director and partner at FutureBrand São Paulo, defends that “brands that are world proof should be governed by universal laws and by the common language of respect, liberty, human rights and the care of the planet and the community. In this way, they will have more capacity and resilience to manage negative externalities and will know how to benefit from the positives.” That is, a brand that wants to internationalise cannot afford to not have a purpose that will make a difference in the country where it will be. In addition, the brand should be attentive to the context of the new country and needs to be able to deal with questions that transcend regional barriers, knowing how to dialogue about these with fluency, independently of cultural differences. Once again: the purpose can’t change, but the mode in which it gains life, yes.
Having defined the purpose, to make a brand world proof it’s necessary to follow five steps:
- Unveil the status-quo: conducting an immersion into the current scenario of the brand and the principal dynamics of the target country.
- Adapt to cultural codes: understanding the local culture and adapting and positioning the brand accordingly.
- Create a local market brand experience: adapting the brand expression to generate an engaging value proposition in the new country.
- Bring a sustainable vision: understanding the sustainability scenario of the target country and delivering an involving and authentic narrative.
- Adapt the business strategy: moulding the operational model to the reality of the local market and the brand positioning that the brand aims to reach in the country.
It deals with constructing international coherence, that is, the capacity to adapt its local execution, maintaining consistency with its purpose and its true essence. That is what makes a brand world proof. That is what makes a brand future proof.
This article originally featured in Meio&Mensagem