How to build a brand that is globally recognisable, but culturally relevant everywhere: An interview with Stefan Doering

In a recent B2B Marketing Podcast, David Rowlands, editor at B2B Marketing, spoke with PwC’s brand lead Stefan Doering about how to approach global brand identity: consistency, relevance, distinctiveness, how translation goes beyond linguistics and the importance of staying true to core values.

Hi Stefan, thanks for joining me today! As brand strategy lead at a huge multinational like PwC, you’ll be intimately familiar with the challenges of branding on a global scale. What do you think the main issue is when it comes to brand building globally?

Hi David, thanks very much for having me, it’s great to be back at B2B Marketing!

In terms of brand building at a global scale, there are three key elements that are critical to success: consistency, relevance and distinctiveness. I know I talk about these elements a lot, but that’s because I truly believe that they are paramount to building a strong and successful global brand.

Consistency because you need to deliver a consistent experience for your people and clients. Of course this includes all elements of your brand world – for example your visual identity, communications, marketing, etc – but I definitely encourage people to think more holistically about the experience they want to create for their brand. Whether that’s for your clients, your own people, your suppliers, collaborators, stakeholders – essentially anyone who comes into contact with your brand.

Relevance because you have to be relevant in today’s market. Make sure that your brand, products, services propositions and communications are highly relevant to the market you’re operating in. Relevancy means that you’re essentially listening to your clients and fulfilling a client need. Relevancy creates opportunities, and that’s critical for a successful global brand.

Distinctiveness because distinctiveness creates mental availability that drives customer preference and first choice. Distinctiveness makes your brand memorable and quite literally ‘distinctive’ in the market. That distinctiveness again should come through in your client experience, marketing and communications and in the products or services you deliver.

Brands that deliver on all three of these areas are the ones that are the most successful in building their global presence.

Now a company might have a brand logo, tone of voice, public image or slogan that comes across really well in one country, but not in another. How can marketing teams ensure these organisations have a cohesive global brand, but one that also works in every country it operates within?

This is an interesting question, and it speaks somewhat to the consistency point that I mentioned earlier. I do believe that having global consistency is important and the strongest brands that tend to outperform the market all ensure they have strong global consistency and cohesion at the heart of their brand presence.

But that’s not to say that brands should be ignorant of local nuances and local markets. Particularly at the moment, we’re definitely seeing a trend that’s moving back to much more ‘localisation’ away from the previous ‘globalisation’ that we’ve seen before.

The best run brands can convene around a singular brand positioning and brand experience, while still being mindful of their local customers, clients and communities. And that’s really what it’s about for me – at PwC we call it ‘freedom, with responsibility’ – which essentially means having a brand that can stretch enough to be relevant locally, while having the full power of the global network behind you.

Following on from this, are translation agencies a thing of the past, or can they still play a role?

Translation agencies can definitely still play a role in driving a consistent, strong global brand message. But I don’t think you can rely solely on translation agencies to simply translate campaigns or communications from one language to another and be done with it. It’s paramount that your organisation’s own local teams across different territories and countries work together with the translation agencies, and input the nuances and particularities of their local markets – as they are the experts in their local region!

And it’s not just from one language to another – certainly one of the things that we look at in my team is how we ‘translate’ from US English to UK English, as again our local markets, customers and clients will often be quite different, and what works across the pond may not work so well over here in the UK. It goes back to the point around being relevant – and that really means being relevant to your local communities, which applies to everything from your service propositions down to the language you use.

So, we’ve discussed the look and feel of the brand, but I imagine the choice of channels marketers communicate in also depends on the country they’re operating within. How important is it for marketers to get this right?

It’s essential. It always makes me think of this quote: “Content is King, Distribution is Queen and she wears the pants” which I believe was coined by Jonathan Perelman at Buzzfeed. Well, in fact, the original quote was from Bill Gates, who wrote an essay in 1996 about why ‘Content is King’; and Perelman added the build that ‘Distribution is Queen’. Because if you can’t get your content in front of the eyes of your customers, then sadly it really is missing the point.

It’s certain that what works in one country may not work at all in another. Media consumption habits can vary drastically across the globe, so again, working together with your local teams, market experts and media agencies, they should know the best channels to reach their customers in their local territories. And needless to say, they should be providing the data and insights to validate their channel decisions.

When it comes to creating a brand that works around the world, what is the best approach to doing this? Should marketers start by asking the French organisation what their audience wants, the UK organisation what their audience wants, and the US organisation what their audience wants, and then build backwards? Or, alternatively, should the message start with the global marketing team and then be adjusted for each country?

There are different ways of approaching building a consistent global brand for your organisation, and a lot of it probably depends on legacy structures and how the business was originally set up. I don’t think there’s necessarily a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of doing it.

Generally, most global brands tend to start with a centralised global marketing team, who will set out the global strategy and the vision, and then it’s up to the local territory marketing teams to make it relevant in their markets and bring it to life in the best way that works for them. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. Many organisations, including ours (as a network of member firms), have their own territory specific leadership teams, go-to-market strategies and objectives, so a huge part of the marketing strategy and activation is led out of the local territory teams, while of course being mindful of being part of the wider global brand.

What is paramount though is to have collaboration, mutual respect and communication between global and local teams – certainly in my experience the more connected and more joined-up we can be, the better the outcomes are. Ultimately, we’re all part of the same team, striving towards the same goals aiming to make the work better – and it’s important to remember that.

You may remember that, earlier this year, some companies were called out for claiming to be LGBTQ+ allies during Pride, and yet, at the same time, were not putting out this same message in countries like Saudi Arabia. Now, this is obviously an extreme example, but there are countless examples of companies claiming X in one country and the complete opposite in another. Perhaps organisations could have got away with this 70 years ago, but with the whole world now existing online and having visibility into all corners of the globe, just how important is it for organisations to truly have one message? What’s the risk if they don’t?

It’s really important for brands to be true to what they stand for. This is critical in building trust with their customers, their people and wider society. So being clear on your purpose and your values, standing by them, and standing up for them is absolutely essential.

Of course, it can be a huge challenge, particularly with regards to having operations in countries with differing laws and regulations, where these may not align to your brand’s values and culture. 

But what’s important here is that organisations and businesses can make a huge difference in these areas - promoting diversity and inclusion, working to promote and advance human rights, and making an impact in their local communities for local people. 

Following on from that, brand purpose is obviously something we’ve spoken a lot about this past year, with the pandemic arguably acting as a catalyst for the increase in its importance. How important do you think brand purpose is, and why (if at all)? Is this really the crux of the matter – the heart of good, global branding?

Purpose is the brightly shining ‘North Star’ that should guide everything that your organisation does. It’s what you stand for, it’s what you believe in and it should form the basis of decision-making for your organisation. It is much more than a brand or marketing strategy - it really needs to be at the heart of your operations to be meaningful - essentially leading the way you do business.

And once your brand truly embodies its purpose, it allows your brand story-telling to come to life. It has to be meaningful, it has to be authentic and it has to be human at its core. And yes, that’s what’s at the heart of good, global branding.

 

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