While brands large and small strive for creative consistency in order to build trust and loyalty, sometimes that exact coherence is simply not feasible across borders. In today’s era of globalization with business operations spanning many markets, cross-cultural fluency is imperative. Recognizing the cultural differences and embracing them, despite the inevitable stretches from existing core brand guidelines, can make all the difference in success or failure.
It is highly challenging for brands to retain their innate identities — identities that have worked so well to fuel their growth — while simultaneously serving up authentic, locally appropriate messaging and creative. Often, there is a great divide between core identity and local preference in a new market.
One of the brands I represent, Insect Shield, a repellent technology for apparel and gear, experienced this challenge when expanding into the Japanese market. We quickly learned that our current communication tone and graphic styles simply did not resonate in Japan.
Thankfully, our U.S. team was able to collaborate closely with our Tokyo-based group, leaning on them to glean vital cultural differences that dramatically impacted brand creative and communications. With close collaboration, we were able to create a balance of locally appropriate creative that still managed to retain inherent brand identity.
On the road to achieving this cross-cultural branding balance, we faced several challenges:
Preconceived Notions: We started by discussing our own preconceived ideas about what we thought the Japanese market would respond to in terms of graphic design aesthetic and communications. Our U.S. team listed words such as modern, minimalist, clean, concise, balanced and refined to describe the proposed flavor as we enthusiastically served up reflective mock-ups to our Japanese colleagues and vendor partners. Needless to say, the designs did not breed an energetic response. Our Japanese colleagues shared feedback including words such as lonely, isolated, remote, unfinished and, worst of all, untrustworthy.
Embracing The Differences: In response to such an epic disconnect, we decided to scrap our widely off-course perceptions and get fluent with the help of our local team. We quickly learned that the preferred aesthetic is one with a dense mix of text, graphics and imagery that we, in the United States, might describe as jam-packed and chaotic. However, we found that many popular Japanese brands have a busy branding aesthetic.
Creating A Healthy Hybrid: Next came the challenge of intersecting these two dramatically different branding worlds, which was surprisingly less difficult than we imagined. Why? Because the core element missing for the Japanese market happened to be a crucial ingredient in our U.S. branding: educational information. So, while this dense serving of brand information strays from our U.S. approach, the educational roots remain consistent.
Three Keys For Success When Marketing Internationally
Through our challenges and learning experiences in Japan, it’s clear to me that successful branding across borders requires flexibility to adjust to what the local audience is looking for and trust in a local team that can guide you in that direction. For fellow marketers who are looking to launch their brands in new international markets, consider these steps prior to expansions.
1. Initial Reminders: The lure of international expansion is real. Expanded markets can increase product minimums, lower costs, increase margins and, in a perfect world, reduce dependencies on your other established markets such as the United States or Canada. Despite these benefits, it is vital to remember that branding across borders is not a one-stop-shop scenario. Powerful branding in the United States can often fall flat elsewhere, so stop and do your due diligence in the form of market research coupled with vetted local insight.
2. Market Research: At a minimum, do a competitor review and analysis. Meticulously research the market opportunity for your product category. Assess what competitor products are already available and whether your product can be easily differentiated. In our case, we had little competition given the complexities of garnering regulatory approvals for our specific category.
3. Local Insight: Whether you choose to establish a sales and marketing office in your new city, as we did, or manage the expansion from the United States, cultivate a team with depth and experience. Enable that team to facilitate market research and conduct on-site meetings with local brand partners, retailers and distributors. These personal connections are vital to establishing brand trust with customers. Additionally, they can be integral to ensuring your consumer-facing branding is culturally appropriate.
Today’s digital landscape allows for more attainable growth expansions across borders, but it is easy to fall into a one-size-fits-all branding trap. Commitment to understanding the cross-cultural differences is crucial and could hold the key to the success or failure of an expansion. In our case, the cultural differences, while seemingly insurmountable at first, became the crux for creating an authentic brand connection in Japan.
When entering a new international market, deploy these best practices to uncover important cultural nuances, and then adapt and revise your branding accordingly.