How should a global brand behave, globally? Part 1 of 2

“Should our brand have one positioning worldwide, or different positionings for each market?”

More than a dozen years ago, I had a short but interesting stint working on a famous brand from Japan. The senior vice president of marketing was visiting from the company’s global headquarters in Tokyo. He asked me in a near whisper during an agency presentation, “Should our brand have one positioning worldwide, or different positionings for each market?”

I was a little startled by the question, as it was in the middle of a creative presentation and he was normally very quiet and polite. But it was clear he had been thinking about this question for a while. My answer was unequivocal. “Tanaka-san, your brand should have one positioning worldwide, but a different creative expressions in each market.” He nodded and said, “So desu-ka.” (“Is that so?”) and then fell back into his chair and pondered.

Unfortunately, he was unable to convince his senior management to follow this advice, and they proceeded to approve an international hodgepodge of campaigns that together did not add up to any one thing that resonated with audiences. That brand was Sony, and today, as I write this on a Mac, I recall with amusement how I used to own a Sony Vaio computer. Where have they gone?

Fast-forward a decade: As my team and I were working on Audi in the UK, we encountered a similar question in a new context. “What do you think about our tagline in the U.S. and how it deviates from the global line Vorsprung durch technik?” In the U.S., the line had been changed to “Truth in Engineering.” This was the only place in the world where the global line had been altered.

My response was that differences in taglines are not as important as the differences in the idea behind the tagline, the advertising and all the products. Vorsprung is about advancement and it is a profound idea – one that has impelled human beings from the beginning of time. It is the thrill of discovery, the heady rush that comes from knowing that you’re creating the future as it unfolds before your very eyes. My problem with “Truth in Engineering” was not about the creative, but about how they were implying an entirely different story with that line.

The secret to global brand management was actually discovered inadvertently more than 100 years ago by German anthropologist Adolf Bastian, widely considered the father of modern anthropology. After an exhaustive study of folklore, myths and stories from cultures around the world, he came to a simple conclusion:

“There are elementary ideas that transcend time and place, and are universal to all people – such as the idea of the mother goddess, who is called Mary by Christians, and Kali by the Hindus. Same principle. But these elementary ideas are expressed as folk ideas in a particular time and place – specific expressions tailored to a specific culture. This is why Mary and Kali look different on the surface.”

That is possibly the most perfect framework for how to manage a global brand. First, identify the elementary idea that is at the core of the brand – the one that is eternal and unchanging. Then, as good anthropologists and clever creative people do, learn how to express that brand into a folk idea, a local expression.

But exactly how does one discover the elementary idea behind a brand -especially one that crosses many markets and cultures? In the next post, we’ll see glimpses into how.