The super-brand paradox

Damned if you do.
Damned if you don't.
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International companies with divisions all over the world suffer from the same problem. They use marketing materials produced in a distant headquarters for all markets. It’s hazardous for the brand. Because how can you produce one-size-fits-all marketing that is both relevant and differentiated across local markets? It’s nearly impossible and that’s why you need more autonomy in local markets.

It’s quite a paradox. The world’s biggest and most valuable brands are typically those that are best at branding on a global level. But locally, it’s often less effective. Far too often the companies use generic PR and marketing materials from a global marcom office and expect that the markets faithfully distribute and activate them. Scattergun tactics.

Consequently, the communication misses the mark in terms of relevance and, not least, cultural norms. Unfortunately, this negatively affects both the credibility and effectiveness of the efforts – and in the end, the brand too.

The issue is especially present among B2B brands. Often, the overall ambition is to develop communication materials that target everyone, but instead they end up being irrelevant to all.

It’s a real shame considering the amount of resources spent building the brand to begin with. It’s not an easy balance. But if global brands want to succeed locally, they need to introduce a larger degree of local autonomy. Obviously, this requires that HQ is willing to loosen control – which is easier said than done.

The ‘on-brand’ balance

Clearly, there are good reasons why big brands often communicate from a central division. If the messages are to be on brand, it takes coherency in look, feel, and messages. However, that doesn’t mean that it can’t target the individual market.

When local markets are under strict top control, the initiative and spark dwindle among local marketeers. They effectively risk ending up like string puppets delivering assembly-line communications without questioning whether this is really the smartest way to use company resources.

How would a central marketing division ever know more about local markets than the local markets themselves?
Mette Hejl CEO & Partner

And now for the inevitable question: if your brand awareness is actually high, does it really matter if the marketing efforts are based on materials developed for another culture and context? Let me answer with another question: how would a central marketing division ever know more about local markets than the local markets themselves? The obvious consequence from centralized marketing is local irrelevance which has a negative impact on the brand – and the damage is far more expensive than any money saved from recycling and lazy versioning.

Introduce real autonomy

As the leader of a brand agency, you aren’t likely to find someone who’s as big an advocate of securing brand coherency across all activities and markets as I am. So, I fully understand it when companies decide to top-manage their brands – especially the biggest, international players.

When we work with brand-building, we operate with three parameters: relevance, authenticity, and differentiation. The problem manifests when a company tolerates detached marketing materials – then there is no foundation for the three pillars.

All communication and marketing should take into account the cultural context of which it is a part. For instance, if a brand communicates from an American culture, it will undeniably seem distant and detached in many other parts of the world.

No easy solutions

Observed from the outside, the super-brand paradox is easily fixed. Simply examine and identify when centrally produced marketing materials work the best and when you should introduce local autonomy and develop the materials locally.

It’s just not that easy in real life. You see, that would require a decision from the central division, and even if the issue is clear to the team, the change is almost impossible to implement. Instead, I think it’s up the local units, who are able to see when materials are out of context, to spark the change.

But it doesn’t end here. If you successfully change the course and introduce de-centralized activities, you will likely change one issue with another. Now the challenge will be to ensure that you communicate on brand in all the creative activities developed in local markets. So really, you’re replacing one problem with another.

And therein lies the paradox.