Reflections on developing global brand strategy

We live in a world of hyper-complexity and constant change. It is often described as a ‘VUCA world’. Volatile. Uncertain. Complex. Ambiguous. A world that is changing faster and more fundamentally than we – as businesses and individuals - can compute. If you ever meet someone who tells you they know/understand what is going on or confidently tells you they know what to do next, be afraid - there is a very small chance that you are talking to a genius, but it is more likely you are in the presence of a fool or a charlatan.

In this world the things we ask of our global brands, the things we need to do are also changing.

  • Our competition is changing with local and store brands able to deliver high quality cheaper alternatives. Local brands can leverage their local flexibility and knowledge at speed. Result: many categories are rapidly commoditising.
  • The consumer is changing. There are literally a billion emerging market consumers slowly entering the world of choice and old market consumers are hyper-savvy in the face of our activities. Consumers that traditional western marketers often struggle to understand.
  • Behaviour is changing. Media consumption, mobile, e-commerce et al work in real time and outside our control. Consumers are far less deferential and everything brands do enters the public domain.
  • Marketing is changing. Media fragmentation is old news. Owned/ Bought/Earned and social media/peer to peer etc. are a world away from the world of our youth when ‘More GRPs = More Success’.
  • Innovation – historically the key advantage of ‘big’ brands - is harder than ever – in Europe and the US there are few unmet needs and in the Emerging Markets ‘old tech’ generally works. The cost of entry in many categories is lower and NPD still has a success rate of around 5% of launches surviving into adolescence. Breakthrough innovation is - as ever - like finding Unicorns!

So, global branding could be said to be at a crossroads and the stakes are high. The emerging market growth opportunity is great but our toolkit for marketing global brands is a castle build on shifting sands. So, it’s either time to give up or a time for huge re-invention and a period of permanent change? Or is it?

Whilst it’s true that we must embrace change and ambiguity as never before in our approach to our businesses; our routes to market; our communications et al, we would argue [and hopefully show you] that the approach to unlocking global brands – at its fundamental level - remains very much the same as it ever was. Further, it would benefit from staying in this naïve, simplified state! Basically, we must not complicate the task [building a global brand] because the context is more chaotic than it used to be.

First, let’s consider what is at the core of successful global branding? Since companies first began marketing across borders there has been a relentless tension between the need for brands to be ruthlessly single minded – to stand for something – and their need to assimilate and respond to local culture, behaviour and consumer needs.

The effective resolution of this conflict is a key success factor in delivering global marketing that works.

So the question is the same as ever, but what do you do in the face of this hyper-complexity and a set of internal competing agendas? First, we must RUTHLESSLY SIMPLIFY. We need to try to understand and manage the world of media fragmentation; big data; changing usage and shopping behaviours; new competition and channels; super-powerful retailers; high quality own label and local brands; mobile; social; owned/bought/earned media etc. etc. etc. but we counsel caution.

We believe that to be actionable the process of brand development must be reduced to a simple quest - we describe this as the search for Meaningful Difference. Not ALL meaningful differences, but a set of differences that are ACTIONABLE, GLOBALLY TRANSFERRABLE and SUSTAINABLE.

MEANINGFUL DIFFERENCE will be harder to find – given the background noise and confusion described above – but the task is the same. Simplify your brand to reflect a set of MEANINGFUL GLOBAL TRUTHS and build an approach to consistently leveraging them in different market contexts and at different stages of your brands or the category’s journey. There is no panacea. This is and will always be, incredibly hard.

And, this journey is the same whether you’re working on one brand in one country or a global brand. Finding, leveraging and ultimately owning points of Meaningful Difference is the critical deliverable that enables brands to win – and sustain their advantage. It is found in insight, products and benefits, consumer engagement or a higher purpose. The challenge is doing this for global brands without ending up without being broken by compromises or settling for the lowest common denominator!

There are a multitude of things to consider, but we focus on 4 platforms in our search for meaningful difference.



So, if marketing is the business of meeting consumer needs, profitably, at its core, marketing is therefore primarily concerned with only two things: Consumers & Brands.

Consumers; because they are the people who actually pay for and consume the product or service. Brands; because they should add the value to sustain the offer and the profit.

The other two variables that influence the primary inputs act as a source of limitation and opportunity. Simplistically, the Category is the set of need-states and benefits which define our market and Competitors are simply the things we need to differentiate from in order to establish our meaningful difference.

So, viewed in this context, the role of the marketer is clear; to identify and understand target consumers and to develop and deliver product and service propositions that are capable of driving preference & loyalty with the attendant sustainable positive cash flows. Ipso facto… to deliver Meaningful Difference – rationally in our products and services and emotionally in the brand we wrap around them.

In theory then, understanding a clearly defined target group and offering them compelling product and service propositions should be within the means of any competent marketing professional.

But what happens when that audience is global, from distinct and differing countries, communities and cultures? That’s perhaps a more complex undertaking and maybe not so easy in practice.

As we all know, successful brands are based on consumer insight, market understanding and a clear, coherent, competitively differentiated positioning that is capable of driving preference, loyalty and advocacy.

Much of the ‘current’ consultancy thinking requires this insight and understanding to be translated into a brand purpose or mission. The problem is that when this is undertaken on a global level it is all too easy to default to high-order, generic category benefits. This is, unfortunately, particularly true in health and wellbeing markets.

The challenge is to SIMPLIFY without being SIMPLISTIC because if you don’t you will find yourself in a destructive spiral of compromise and debate about meaninglessdifferences. We put the world of brand communications/activity into three [over simplified] ‘buckets’ and recommend a brutally simple approach.

VISUAL (what you look like / your identity) – be VERY GLOBAL and only allow variation if it is really, really unavoidable. Create old fashioned guidelines and stick to them. This doesn’t mean a brand needs to be monolithic and only do matching luggage – but that it should decide its approach and stick to it. 9 times out of 10, there is no benefit in playing around with your visual assets.

VERBAL (what you say / your tone) – again, try to make your messages global but accept and acknowledge there will be more need for allowing meaningful differences.

The world of brand communication is littered with translation and interpretation mistakes:

  • Braniff International translated a slogan touting its finely upholstered seats "Fly in Leather" into Spanish as "Fly Naked."
  • KFC made Chinese consumers a bit apprehensive when "finger licking good" was translated as "eat your fingers off."
  • Mercedes-Benz entered the Chinese market under the brand name "Bensi," which means "rush to die."


BEHAVIOUR (what you do / where you do it / who you do it with) – brand behaviour MUST reflect and be as integrated as it can be into the real behaviours and real life of the consumers it targets. It is the source of its authenticity and the basis for engagement – and because it is usually at the executional end of the spectrum it should be the most localised element.

The global brand should define its macro values, a clear personality and behavioural norms – where it would be seen or not seen. However it should allow more freedom for local promotional and executional activity. Local markets will vary in quality and sensitivity to the brand and they will get it wrong sometimes, so vigilance is required.

That said it is impractical and counter-productive to manage this in a command and control way. High performance demands a modus operandi that values seeking forgiveness over seeking approval. A one off promotion that goes off brand is not good, but it’s not disaster IF the core elements of the brand and it’s look and feel are in place. On the flipside the benefits of an occasional piece of local genius far outweighs the effort and pain of stopping the occasional bit of mediocrity.

So to conclude…. Global brand development works in a dynamic and often chaotically complex environment but the rules of the game are the same as ever.

SIMPLIFY everything to a few key points of meaningful difference - The areas you can focus on, leverage and ultimately ‘own’.

Once you have mapped your brand footprint execute against it. Again, for simplicity’s sake, think about your brand through VISUAL, VERBAL and BEHAVIOURAL lenses. All require central management, but success will come if you allow local markets to experiment and occasionally fail on the behavioural dimension.

Over simplifying the rule of thumb is: VISUALLY act globally; VERBALLY act globally, but be rigorous in checking for meaningful differences in translation or meaning. BEHAVIOURALLY, beyond a framework that reflects the positioning – let markets interpret and implement to maximise the brands ability to become part of the zeitgeist and to attach itself to moments and things of cultural relevance with your audience.

As ever, it is a unique and complex journey of Glocal and Global. Short on right answers and with regular booby traps and quicksand. As with all journeys it is ultimately about the destination – but in this case the first steps create the tools for success.

Spend time – usually more than you want - defining and uncovering the real points of Meaningful Difference in the Category, your Consumer, versus Competitors and in the Concept (Offer) your brand makes… time spent here will create something robust enough to ride the storms of a VUCA world.

Once you have your blueprint in place define the rules of engagement in local markets. A RASCI or ways of working is key. Everyone must know where the buck stops and who makes the key decisions.

Then everyone can play together nicely for years to come!