Cooking Up A Culturally Relevant Brand Dish

Originally published at on August 5, 2016.

Let’s begin with some bad news. For any brand manager or marketer, the concept of a one-dimensional, static, consistent global brand is dead. If this concept is still living or lurking in a corner of your organisation, force it out and kill it.

Just because the same brand name or packaging design is used in all countries where it is available, it does not mean it is a global brand. Consumers have moved beyond packaging and brand names as triggers of decision-making. Yes, these remain potent factors impacting shelf visibility and recognition, but to think they have influence beyond that is a mistake.

Instead, let’s look at the catchphrases that “every brand is now an experience” and “branded experiences.” If this is true in how consumers are now engaging and evaluating brands, then it is no longer plausible to expect success globally by having the same consistent experience everywhere.

Rather, successful brands should aim to be culturally relevant and garner appeal within the different scenarios and contexts in which they are used. Those brands that fail to succeed globally often make the mistake of “adapting” to local culture, instead of allowing that culture to “infuse” into their advertising and marketing efforts.

Adaptation Vs. Infusion
One example of this “adaptation” mistake is to keep the creative development process centralised and force every country to use the same global campaign. Another example is a global slogan that is just translated into different languages. A third example is a global positioning platform that tries to force its way into multiple countries, regardless of the fact whether that positioning has any local relevance or not.

Brands that “infuse” do exactly the opposite. Creative briefs and campaign development are driven locally, positioning platforms are changed to make them more relevant, and slogans (if any) are deemphasised. To take an example, the slogan “Just Do It” is strongly associated with Nike, but its ads hardly feature it anymore.

Global Aspirations
Let’s imagine for a moment a brand with global aspirations. It wants to achieve these through a consistent and differentiated positioning platform. In this example that hypothetical platform is around “helping you cook dishes from around the world in the comforts of your kitchen.” With a reasonable sense of accuracy we can assume that the brand has a wide range of spices, condiments, and ingredients in its portfolio. If this brand goes ahead and follows the typical route of “adaptation,” it will create a global campaign and will adapt its campaign for different markets. It will also try to communicate a consistent message to try to reinforce its global positioning.

Yet this global campaign will fail to drive the brand’s positioning — for obvious and simple reasons. For any food brand (whether it is an end-product or it acts as an ingredient) to succeed globally, a strong level of cultural orientation is necessary. According to global food trends analysts, south-east Asian flavours are gaining popularity across the world, with Malaysian and Filipino flavours leading the way. Ever heard of “Poke,” which is gaining popularity in America? Dishes such as “Shakshuka” are now making their way into restaurants around the world from their humble origins in Libya and Tunisia. The love for Italian pasta is strengthening among Singaporeans, which, in turn, is leading to an onslaught of restaurant openings in the segment. Other emerging food trends are around more fresh produce shopping, emergence of “Clear Label” foods, minimal processed foods, and the move towards alternative protein sources (as replacements for meat).

For the hypothetical, aspirational food ingredients brand, keeping on top of these global trends and their manifestations at a local level is critical for success. If the differentiated positioning is enabling “your kitchen to become a global-cuisine melting pot,” then the range, the communication, and the marketing around it and the brand messages that need to be crafted should have local relevance.

For example, kitchens in Paris are very small, with limited storage space and even smaller refrigerators. Parisians believe in the principle of “buying less quantity and shopping more frequently.” Does this have any significance for our hypothetical global brand? Yes, it does, and it means it probably needs to introduce multi-spice variants so that you do not need to buy five different packs of spices to cook a single food item.

Infusion: Culturally-Relevant Localisation
“Infusion,” from the very nature of the word, requires a deeper understanding of local cultures and traditions, and how they influence brand building. A strategic tension in global brand building is between consistent positioning vs. complexity and variances in local cultures. The ideal way to diffuse this tension is to allow flexibility in brand-building approaches. Local culture infusion can in itself identify different (but relevant) ways of positioning.

To take an example that is different from oft-quoted success cases, Google invests in brand building through a strategy that has a strong “localisation” element. Its ads in India feature the nation’s favourite emotional subjects — Bollywood, reunion across geographies, and empowering people with disabilities. Its ads in the U.K. cover topics like the “Great British Dinner Party,” while its ads in Thailand focus on how its capabilities can be used by younger generations to solve the problems of their parents (focusing on the strong sense of family in Thai society).

A Framework For ‘Infusion’ Success
There are no right or wrong ways of infusing local culture into global brand strategies. But there are some guiding principles:

  • Communicating the positioning in a locally relevant manner (cultural, social, emerging trends, and consumer aspirations).
  • Embracing the societal and cultural roots of a country in the brand-building process.
  • Understanding and mastering the complexities and richness of global cultures.

Activating The Right Mindset
To make the “infusion” mindset an integral component of global brand building, businesses need to move it from paper to processes and actions. Brand and marketing leadership functions can play a strong role in driving this change in thinking, which can be accomplished through a combination of strategic global direction and deep local involvement.

  • Decision making should be more collaborative, with constant interaction between global and local country-level brand functions.
  • Any change in the strategic direction of a global brand should be decided after all relevant stakeholders have had their chance to contribute.
  • Future planning around critical elements of the marketing mix (e.g. new campaigns, change in positioning, brand portfolio extensions, targeting different market segments) need to imbibe feedback from local markets.
  • Last but not least, global marketers need to be more receptive and participatory to thoughts from their key local stakeholders.




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