Multi-country brands should position themselves consistently across markets only on image attributes that are very important in all of the various countries. For example, brand image attributes related to benevolence or self-direction, which are valued highly in most countries, can be used consistently. Better to be inconsistent (used in certain markets only) with a divisive value such as hedonism or power.
When marketing their brands, companies will use image attributes, which are the impressions that the brand makes on the mind of consumers. For a car brand, for example, marketers might position their brand on the image of being ‘safe and dependable’ or ‘exciting’ or ‘tough.’
Brand consistency — using the same image or positioning in all or most countries — is the most cost-efficient approach for global brands, since it benefits from the economies of scale savings of standardization. But this cost advantage from consistency runs the risk of making the standardized brand less appealing in specific markets.
When the image attributes on which a brand is positioned fit the underlying cultural values of a target country, attitudes toward the brand will be higher; when there is a disconnect between the brand’s image and the cultural values of that market, attitudes will be lower.
Apple’s ‘I am a Mac’ advertising campaign, which compared the pleasure, play-oriented Mac with the more staid, efficient PC, was popular in the U.S. but was received much more negatively in Japan. The reason is that while fun and other hedonistic attitudes reflect the value preferences in the U.S., Japan’s culture places greater emphasis on group conformity and work ethic. For the Japanese market, it was the PC’s attributes in the Apple campaign that were more impressive — not exactly the result Apple had in mind.
Therefore, whether consistency is also the most effective approach — one that creates the most positive attitudes about the brand in most countries — depends on whether the image attribute on which the global brand is consistently positioned fits the underlying cultural values of most of the target markets.
As countries become more economically developed, the cultural values they consider most important begin to change. Values like Hedonism, Power, and the pursuit of individual status grow in importance – but typically are not valued highly in less developed markets. So these types of values vary in their relative importance, across countries. But other values, like benevolence or self-direction, remain highly important in all countries, regardless of their level of development.
Therefore, consistently building across many countries an image around ‘benevolence,’ ‘universalism,’ ‘self-direction’ and ‘achievement’ — four values that are more universally prized — will create more positive attitudes toward the brand. Consistently building across many countries an image around more divisive values such as ‘hedonism’ or ‘power,’ on the other hand, will create more negative attitudes toward the brand overall. And the negative impact of consistently sending a message that jars with the culture of different nations is greater than the positive impact of a message that fits. With a brand image built around a less universally accepted value, such as hedonism, it’s better to be inconsistent: in other words, use such an image attribute in carefully selected countries and not in others.
The question of consistency vs. inconsistency in multinational marketing also depends on the competition.
The positive impact of brand image consistency across markets can also be influenced by the set of competitors a company might face. Some companies will face competitors who offer a variety of brand positionings. Other companies face competitors who are all promoting the same attributes — for example, safety or convenience. Multinational consistency in the brand’s position is especially effective in this last case, when the brand faces a consistent set of competitively positioned brands. When the brand faces a diverse set of competitive brands, having a consistent message makes little difference.
Building a consistent brand image — the same image in all countries — is effective only if the image connects with universal needs and values, or at least needs and values that are more universal (i.e. if not one-size-fits-all, then at least one-size-fits-most).
Therefore, when looking to create consistent multinational marketing campaigns, use clever market research to reveal the life-values that represent the commonalities between countries, and not the differences. Then position the brand on image attributes that reflect these common life-values.
Use multi-country brand development teams who can bring perspectives from multiple markets to find the positioning that works best in as many countries as possible.
Avoid divisive brand positioning or image attributes — those that are not universally accepted — whenever possible. Apple’s campaign would have been successful in more countries had it positioned the brand around self-direction (creativity and independent thought) rather than hedonism.
If, however, certain brand images work well in certain countries, then use these inconsistently.
Also use image attributes inconsistently when faced with a variety in the brand positioning from competitors.
Brand image consistency creates economies of scale, but can also lose market share in countries that reject the underlying cultural value represented by the image. Managers will have to balance economies of scale and market share concerns to determine the campaign approach that, holistically, is more effective: for example, a consistent brand image elicits a positive in enough countries that the savings from economies of scale make up for lost market share in other countries.
Positioning Multi-Country Brands: The Impact of Heterogeneity in Cultural Values and Competitive Set. Rajeev Batra, Y. Charles Zhang, Nilüfer Z. Aydinoglu & Fred M. Feinberg. Ross School of Business Working Paper No. 1201 (February 2013).
Ideas for Leaders is a free-to-access site. If you enjoy our content and find it valuable, please consider subscribing to our Developing Leaders Quarterly publication, this presents academic, business and consultant perspectives on leadership issues in a beautifully produced, small volume delivered to your desk four times a year.
For the less than the price of a coffee a week you can read over 650 summaries of research that cost universities over $1 billion to produce.
Use our Ideas to:
Speak to us on how else you can leverage this content to benefit your organization. firstname.lastname@example.org