Be a Genre: Why Flexibility and Cultural Awareness are Essential for Global Brands

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The rise of mobile has given even small organizations a global reach. Google Play and Apple’s App Store are accessible anywhere and it’s not unusual for an app to see downloads from around the world as soon as they launch. And while that international scope creates incredible opportunities for growth, it also creates branding and marketing challenges.
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Ming-Ha Nguyen (center) speaking at The Global Identity Solution panel

Those challenges were the focus of a discussion during the November 5th LTR conference in New York City that was moderated by Quartz Editor-in-Chief Kevin Delaney. The panel, The Global Identity Solution, featured several mobile thought leaders: Erik Martin, vice president, member engagement at WeWork; SmartNews partner relations director Bernie Davis; Ming-Ha Nguyen, former general manager of ecommerce for Walmart China; and Mario Aichlseder, vice president, growth, at Runtastic.

Before you can tell your brand’s story, you need to be able to communicate with customers in a way they’ll understand. When Runtastic’s first app launched, the brand ensured that it could reach an international audience by supporting 11 different languages from day one. According to Aichlseder, Runtastic was able to accomplish that feat by taking advantage of an existing asset, the language skills and cultural knowledge of their different country managers. By focusing “on cultural differences to position and reach people effectively,” Aichlseder said, Runtastic has been able to build 95% of its customer base through organic downloads.

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WeWork’s Erik Martin (center) speaking during the panel

When entering a new market, brands need to take into account cultural differences and be willing to adjust their offering to fit new customers’ needs. That’s what happened when Japan-based SmartNews launched its U.S. news discovery app. According to Davis, U.S. customers were reluctant to swipe left on the app for fear of deleting stories, an apparent reflection of Tinder’s popularity in America. But because SmartNews was vigilant about paying attention to cultural differences between the U.S. and Japan, the issue was quickly identified and the app tweaked to address the problem.

Your brand needs to be flexible enough to fit into each market it enters, but distinct enough that different people in different countries have a clear idea what you represent and what value you bring. That’s not easy.

Panelists at LTR

(l-r:) Runtastic’s Mario Aichlseder; SmartNews’ Bernie Davis; and Quartz’s Kevin Delaney

How can companies get there? WeWork’s Erik Martin recommended thinking about your brand as a genre, like romance or film noir: something that “can be adapted, rebooted, tweaked” but which stays whole and “doesn’t turn to mush.” Firms that base their identities on a very specific, local context will struggle to make their brand resonate in other markets until they find simple, flexible brand promises than can be upheld as they grow.

Walmart’s Sam’s Club chain of membership-only warehouse stores may just be the exemplar of this kind of flexibility. In the U.S., Sam’s Club is popular among cost-conscious shoppers, Nguyen told the audience, but it has become a high-end, aspirational brand for Chinese consumers: “In China, [Sam’s Club caters to] business owners and take[s] advantage of the gifting culture that’s so prevalent [there].” While customers in the U.S. are buying less expensiveproducts than Chinese buyers, the brand’s promise of members-only discounts on sought-after items rings true in both countries.

Today’s customer relationships are global. “Having a brand promise that’s universally adaptable, regardless of the segment you end up pursuing country by country,” Nguyen said, “that’s really helpful.”

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