There are no global brands...

...or are there? The question put to global consumers uncovered truths that challenge the 'No Logo' and 'think local' philosophies. Jennifer Hiscock reports on the RIO study

In an era of growing tribalism and anti-capitalism the concept of global brands is meaningless - or is it?

Just how powerful is the consumer backlash against brand homogeneity? What do consumers really think about global brands? How local should global brands get? Are political views damaging your brand? And what are the implications for marketers of global brands that reflect American values?

Research International Observer (RIO), a global bi-annual qualitative study, posed questions on these topics to more than 1,500 consumers in 41 countries and 52 cities, with the hypothesis: "There are no global brands -- or are there?"

The results of the study, presented today (Wednesday), at The Marketing Society annual conference, show that the consumer is not as hostile to brands or marketing as many marketers fear.

"Global brands make you feel part of something bigger and give you a sense of belonging," said one interviewee from New Zealand. "Brands increase the value of the one who uses them," said a Japanese respondent. And from an interviewee in Hong Kong: "You feel you are above others if you own a Louis Vuitton product."

Consumers love brands, says Greet Sterenberg, director of Research International Qualitatif.

"Because it took a polemical view, Naomi Klein's No Logo thesis is wrong," says Sterenberg. "Because brands are enhanced and made richer by the consumer's own projections, messages inconsistent with brand behaviour will be ignored. The brand landscape is politicised, but consumers are not. They embrace the politicisation of brands reluctantly rather than willingly and would rather that brands were opaque than transparent -- they do not want to know about the firm behind the brand."

According to the RIO research, consumers are not influenced by negative behaviour by brands to the extent that many marketers may have believed. "They want to be able to forgive and forget," says Sterenberg. "They do not like to be disconnected from brands. It's easier for them to forgive than to change their behaviour. Their political views are disconnected from their behaviour as consumers."

Good company behaviour is noted and is embraced - it has more impact than bad behaviour. According to the study, consumers only deal with bad behaviour when it cannot be denied and affects them directly.

"Tommy Hilfiger said publicly that he did not intend his clothes to be marketed for Latin Americans or black people, but I still buy them," said one black respondent from El Salvador. "I know about Nestle and its milk powder scam, but one Kit Kat can't make much of an impact," said a British interviewee. "Genetically altered products affect my health. I may stop buying these products for a while but, as time goes by, I'll forget about this and use them again," said an interviewee from Hong Kong.

The research shows that even when it comes to so-called American imperialism, consumers turn a blind eye. "It seems that America and American brands live in different worlds -- they are separated and made distinct by the consumer," says Sterenberg. "There is not as much anti-Americanism for brands as is thought."

"You can hate the US and love Coke," said a Belgian interviewee. "American brands offer good products. I don't care about them, I care about their stuff," said a South African respondent. "Our political views have nothing to do with our behaviour as consumers. If you go into town, you will see many people wearing Levi's handing out documents protesting against the capitalist system," said a Turkish respondent.

The RIO study shows that politics is disconnected from the consumption of brands. "For the broad mass of consumers, brands are far removed from their own situation, so they do not act and there is little impact from activists," says Sterenberg.

Though consumers want global brands such as Nike and Chanel, they often want them to appeal to them as individuals, or at least to take into account their local cultures. So just how local should global brands get? The need for localisation varies with the nature of the culture, the nature of the category and the brand's positioning: master, prestige, super or 'glocal'.

Master brands such as Coca-Cola, Sony, Nike or Nokia set the standard of the category -- they are the original, genuine article. "They are built on a proposition with universal relevance and resonance," says Sterenberg. "They are immortal, constantly innovative, relevant. They appeal to the need to conform and -- by offering limited edition or tailored products -- the need to stand out."

Prestige brands such as Gucci, Rolex, Louis Vuitton and Mercedes are defined in the research as giving status and power. They are 'display brands', the best buy in their categories, and are often built on the myth or the provenance of the founder.

Super brands such as Gillette, Ford and Pepsi are based more on category and performance than a universal resonance. These are omnipresent global brands, but are not always perceived as the original.

Lastly, 'glocal' brands such as Danone, Nestle, Kraft, Dove and Kleenex are defined by the RIO study as private brands for the home or self, with a weak display function. They are seen as trustworthy and are not recognised as international brands by consumers, who often see them as close, local brands. "Many non-Dutch people we interviewed thought Philips came from their country, which shows the extent of its localisation," says Sterenberg.

Global vs local

"Glocal brands" need the highest degree of localisation, prestige brands the least. Indeed, the localisation of prestige brands is often as minimal as translation. "With these brands," says Sterenberg, "it's important to apply the aspirational test to the use of local symbols. Mercedes and BMW advertising in Japan and Singapore will usually avoid the use of local drivers because they are not considered sufficiently prestigious."

For most 'master' and 'super' brands there is a natural tension between the need to stay global and the desire to have a local character. "Local consumers do not want to feel they are part of some large, highly homogenised audience," says Sterenberg. "But they also don't want these brands to lose their global feel because that's part of the aspiration."

"If they become too local, they lose prestige," said a respondent from Singapore. "If the brand is too Chileanised, it loses its status," said another from Chile. "Don't spoil the brand by adding a German cultural burden," said a respondent from Germany. And from South Africa: "We actually don't want them to be South African, we just want them making an effort to impress."

But the global/local question hinges on category as well as positioning. "Categories with high display value or with highly aspirational positionings will need less localisation," says Sterenberg. "Because they are rooted in local taste, traditional culture and physiology, food, household cleaning and personal care products will always need more localisation. It's worth applying the aspirational test: though in a high display category, Toyota is viewed as a local brand in Australia because its positioning is distinctly everyday.

"Conversely, Nescafe uses local people for its coffee in India but puts them in aspirational settings because of the positioning of the brand," says Sterenberg. "Nike sponsors a local marathon in Budapest, but is careful to use an international spokesperson in Michael Jordan."

Culture is another factor. The RIO study found that the need for localisation is related to the degree of pride in local values and confidence in how these values are viewed by others. High pride and confidence cultures such as Mexico and France may need more localisation than low pride cultures such as Brazil or Belgium. Relatively closed traditional cultures such as India or China also need more localisation.

According to responses from the RIO study, the same is true of countries or regions that have historically been dominated by other cultures, such as Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Austria and Denmark, or of younger nations with higher cultural assertiveness, such as Russia.

The relevance of a brand's global identity will also vary geographically. "Asian consumers," says Sterenberg, "tend to set a high value on Western provenance for many branded goods. Europe tends to set less store on global provenance. Less developed countries will often want to know where the item was manufactured."

The study shows that it is vital for marketers to check that the values of the brand fit with the local culture. "BMW stresses engineering excellence in its advertising in New Zealand, avoiding a more overt emphasis on status and success, which are dissonant with local cultural norms," says Sterenberg.

In assessing a brand's need for localisation, or before entering a new market, the research shows that marketers should take into account the brand's category, whether it has display values, the nature of the local culture, consistency between brand values and local values.

Decisions also have to be made about the product, Sterenberg says. To what degree can the product be localised? Are there local tastes and needs that should be taken into account? "McDonald's has done a remarkable job customising its fare to local taste," says Sterenberg. "Many marketers are still aiming for cohesive brand harmonisation across all markets, but media is now fragmented, so marketers should specialise the product and the campaign, and use the fragmentation to reach tribal audiences."

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