There’s arguably never been a better time to take a brand overseas. With social media now a ubiquitous presence in most people’s lives and the dawn of the internet a mere speck in our rear-view mirror, startups have instant access to international customers at the touch of a button. And as the world pulls itself out of economic meltdown, a whole host of visionary enterprises have come to the fore, all of which were founded upon ambitions of global success.
But becoming a truly global brand is no walk in the park. Startups should be under no illusions about the amount of work that’s entailed in getting their name anywhere and everywhere. Suffice to say, the companies that have gone on to become international megabrands share some distinct characteristics. “If you look at the global brands that have been particularly successful, they all know exactly why they exist and they are ferocious about protecting that,” says Mark Artus, CEO of 1HQ, the branding agency. “If you aren’t clear about why you actually exist, you can get into all sorts of trouble because you will just be interpreted however a particular market chooses to see you.”
Without a doubt, an entrepreneur who has their eyes abroad from the outset will be bound for failure if their brand only strikes a chord with domestic customers. “There is often a debate about what is local and what is global – and I think what the brand stands for has to be global,” says Ed Bussey, founder and CEO of Quill, the content marketing agency. “You might localise some of the communication but it still should have a brand signature that is consistent across all markets.”
An uncomplicated brand message is a good starting point, according to Jorn Werdelin, co-founder of Linde Werdelin, the specialist watch and instrument company. “Ours is quite a simple message: watches, instruments, diving, skiing, Jorn and Morten,” he says. “That’s something that people can understand, regardless of whether they actually do those activities or not. It provides a simple and, to some extent, unique story: there are two old friends setting up a company that sells watches for going diving and going skiing.”
Being understood is one thing but without a sufficient amount of demand for the product or service it’s tied to, a brand can struggle to make a mark on the international stage. Finding a niche in a crowded market can help. “If you do something that’s really unique, then you can find a space in the universe,” adds Werdelin. “People don’t need another sweater, they don’t need another car, they don’t need another watch but what can you give them so that they can enjoy what you do?”
Whilst a global brand’s raison d’être will transcend international boundaries, the likes of Coca Cola and Apple still have to deal with the cultural nuances thrown up by every single market they enter. Getting to grips with the distinct characteristics of ‘local’ audiences, and adapting accordingly, is therefore a core part of any international growth strategy. “You have got to understand who your audience is in the new market and how one communicates with that audience,” says Bussey. “Whilst you might have adopted a certain set of marketing channels to reach the audience in the UK, that target audience might be present in a very different place in China or Japan. You have to figure out what your marketing strategy is to reach that audience, whilst maintaining your brand values.”
One way of meeting such a challenge is employing or at least engaging with people who are attuned with the local way of doing things. “Wherever you go, you need someone on the ground who is culturally fluent as well as language fluent – someone who is immersed in the culture of the country you’re targeting,” says Tamara Littleton, founder and CEO of Emoderation, the social media management agency. “Even in markets where on the surface we’re very similar and share a language – such as Australia where we’ve just launched – there are still cultural differences to consider.”
With brands jumping on the content bandwagon left, right and centre nowadays, tackling the language barrier has become an even more important part of global marketing efforts. Needless to say, a simple bit of translation isn’t going to cut the mustard. “You could translate if you wanted but if you’re doing this properly, you’d localise the content,” says Bussey. “You need native speakers who understand the local vernacular and the local idioms. The moment you start to translate, you are eroding the accuracy and the tone of that content.”
Due consideration must be given to the visual characteristics of a brand as well as the actual words used in slogans, marketing copy or on social media channels. “It’s a huge challenge and companies still get it wrong,” says Artus. “Red isn’t seen as very positive in certain parts of Asia and there are certain bits of language you can’t use in other parts of the world. You have to do your research and ask yourself: ‘How do I translate this brand into the market we’re going to? Are there cultural issues? Are there colour issues? Are there language issues? Is the sentiment wrong?’”
As Artus goes on to explain, brands are at liberty to adopt a different name in different markets as long as they don’t stray from the message they’re trying to portray to the world. “You absolutely need to address every market as it comes,” he says. “For instance, Surf is called Omo in Brazil but if you look at the centre of Surf or you look at the centre of Coke, there are the assets that define the brand. And as long as those are right and as long as everybody understands them, you can then work out how you can best express that brand in the markets you’re taking it to.”
With the possible exception of music, there’s surely not anything that connects the world as much as sport. The global reach of the Premier League is such that you can fully expect to find yourself discussing Manchester United’s defensive frailties with a Balinese tour guide on your honeymoon. Sportlobster, the sports social network founded by Andy Meikle in early 2013, looks to harness this universal love of sport by allowing users to engage with fellow sport lovers in all parts of the globe. The platform has already amassed an impressive 1.8 million users across 227 territories worldwide.
Tailoring Sportlobster’s content for each and every country it touches has been key to this growth. The United States was a prime example of this. “When we planned the introduction of sports which have a mass following in the US, we knew that this content needed to meet the specific needs of American sports fans,” he explains. “We appointed specialist members of our team, who now manage the communications channels for our US content. They adopt a very different tone of voice and language to those used across other sports on the platform. It is easy to pinpoint someone who doesn’t really understand or watch American sports by the way they write and the language they use.”
Respecting cultural nuances and traditions is just as important for Sportlobster as other brands, in spite of the universality of its product. “Different audiences have very different senses of humour and different ways of interpreting potentially amusing content,” Meikle says. “Equally, common phrases or sayings in one country may be completely meaningless in another country. Because of this, we continually have to ask ourselves ‘Who are we speaking to? What is the appropriate tone of voice? Will this translate across different regions or do we need to target the content specifically towards one sport, one nationality or one specific audience?’”