Six simple reminders before you go global

It takes more than a tagline to take over the world, says Siegel+Gale's Howard Belk.

It takes more than a tagline to take over the world.

Oh, you’ll need a tagline, for sure. But before you start thinking your brand and your way of doing things are going to change, say, China, think again. While the world might seem smaller thanks to the Internet and social media, your brand will still have to traverse cultural divides, enter unexplored territory, and encounter unexpected resistance.  

That means your brand’s journey can get complicated quickly, which is why simplicity matters — in experiences, language, brand promise, professional relationships, contractual relationships, tools, and processes — all around the world.

So before you take your big brand global, here’s some simple counsel:

Don’t be US-centric
You’d be surprised how many big companies with track records of enormous success still operate from a very parochial point of view. Reorient your perspective. Remember where you’re going, not where you’re from. Don’t talk about dollars and cents in a country where they do business in euros. In advertising, in imagery, in communications across channels, it’s critical to consider matters of gender, issues of decorum, views of privacy, caste systems, and historical context.

Ask the right questions
It’s a given that any organization with plans to go global needs to ensure a solid fact base that supports its assumptions and plans. But your research better include more than basic brand metrics like awareness, recognition, and understanding. What you really need to know is how people make choices in different parts of the world, because they are, more often than not, based on different value systems. Mapping your audience’s decision-making process will help you frame and present your story in a way that resonates with people from vastly different cultures with distinctly different needs. 

Make sure your brand platform is solid
To roll out a brand on a global scale, you need a governing structure — a team that’s always on it. You’re going to have a lot of different people executing your strategy and telling your story — maybe thousands of them. And most won’t even be part of your marketing department. But everything they do and say has to track back to a strong brand platform. Is your purpose clear? What about your promise? Your values? Your voice? Do they translate? Are they thoroughly understood by your organization? If not, then most if not all of the investment in tools and training will go to waste. 

Design a simple, flexible system
Design is one of the most powerful tools you have at your disposal when you go global. After all, a bigger arena means more competitors. That puts pressure on your brand to be even more distinctive because me-too brands will be ignored. If you’re going to be international, you have to connect with more people from more places. Take a look at the elements in your graphic identity system that define you, starting with your logo. Consider your color palette and fonts as well. Companies such as HP have created proprietary fonts to set them apart, making them immediately recognizable in English, Chinese, Japanese, Cyrillic, etc. Realize, too, that production norms in the US are different from those in Asia or Latin America. That goes for the money available for communications and hard artifacts, too. So when you create a system, a standard, and the templates to implement consistently, consider that what is created elsewhere will, in all likelihood, be different — signage, photography, point of sale merchandising, livery, all of it.

Begin with a digital perspective
Be sure your brand experience is optimized for a world that’s holding your brand in the palm of its hand. Many emerging markets have completely leapfrogged generations of technology, going straight to mobile, cellular, and digital. So if you’re not thinking about that media, that platform, that device, you’re going to look irrelevant and dated. In fact, if your brand is going to travel, you should start from a digital perspective and build for small-scale viewing as you think about your brand assets, messaging, and communication strategies. Because people not only experience your brand digitally, they buy it that way, too.

Go beyond translation; make a connection
History is full of brand disasters where more than the tagline was lost in translation. They are the stuff of marketing legend, though not the kind any company would hope for. Legend or not, they speak to a need for establishing more than brand outposts, because cultural missteps can cost a company millions in sales and cause irreparable damage to one’s reputation. If your brand is going to live and thrive out in the world, it needs to connect to the people, the culture, and the history of the places it lives. And that means homegrown staff — from customer support and linguists to key executives.

Howard Belk is co-CEO of global strategic branding firm Siegel+Gale.

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