Branding for global, local or both?

When you take on a brand project with a global business, the thorny issue about how to deal with the various regions and the language translations is always there, sitting just below the surface.

We’ve had quite a few client conversations on the topic of late, so it’s probably worth setting out our philosophy and experience on the matter here on the blog.

Spoiler alert - there’s not an easy answer. Just like most aspects of branding, there are no absolute rights or wrongs - just what’s best for that particular client at that particular time.

That said, in our view the best solutions should be driven by the profile and type of client: how they’re structured and their level of spend, supplying them with manageable solutions rather than idealistic, theory-based answers which won’t work in the real world.  During a sales call recently I was asked what my view was on ‘the translation issue’ for their brand. I said I didn’t know, because I didn’t know enough about their business and how it works from the centre to the regions.  Getting into the detail here is what matters. It’s not about generalised opinions. You can’t prescribe a solution without understanding the whole of the problem.

One really helpful way to think about this type of challenge is to think about an organisation’s brand like an onion (just not a brand onion!) with different layers. At the core, the Crown Jewels if you will - the key foundational elements of the brand (e.g mission, vision, values & identity) that are locked and are not changeable by territory or region. Move a layer out, you’ll find elements which might offer a little flexibility e.g campaigns and messaging, tone of voice, product naming & pricing. And another layer out from here may include brand elements which owners are prepared to offer more in market adaptations, e.g. imagery, colourways, animation and graphic style. Every organisation’s layers will be different, and they need to figure out which brand elements they want to control centrally and lock into the core, and which they’re more comfortable with regional in-market interpretation.

So, before we get into complicated questions like “should we translate the brand strapline and product names in every market?”, it’s helpful to take a step back and understand the type of organisation we’re dealing with - and how they’re currently set up to deal with these brand challenges. The degree to which clients can control the layers depends largely on the type of organisation they are. And there are a couple of areas that are worth considering up front to make some informed decisions:

Marketing led?

This is a key realisation for many B2B organisations. If you’re historically a product driven and sales focused business, and marketing tends to play second fiddle, then you’ll probably need simple solutions with many of the brand elements locked in at the core. It’s likely that the organisation won’t have the marketing expertise and resource in market, so control and discipline of execution is important. The important thing to remember is that you must learn to walk before you can run. We’ve seen so many instances of really good brand work being diluted through poor understanding and execution because the organisation just doesn't have the requisite discipline or expertise in the regional markets to make the work stick. Better to do a little really well with limited resource, than try to do too much with too little.

B2C brands tend to have better resourced marketing functions in the regions. This means they’re able to flex their brand assets in market with the confidence that the end product will be executed and implemented at a quality that befits the overall brand. 

Target Markets

The other aspect to remember from a B2B perspective, is that in most cases the target market segments tend to be relatively small and have a similar profile (another reason why you don’t need huge product portfolios, but that’s another blog post). This means it’s a really sensible play to control all of the brand elements from the centre, with little or no variation in market. Keeps it simple and efficient, too. 

From a B2C perspective - generally their markets are broader and wider and will come with some differences in character and culture, which need a more tailored brand approach on the ground. Who doesn’t love wandering down a foreign supermarket aisle and spotting that your favourite flavour of crisps or juice has a different name, a different pack, or a whole range of product extensions that you can’t get at home? It makes perfect sense for these B2C brands with their bigger and better resourced marketing functions to allow much more flexibility in execution. 

Yes, but what about those translations?

So, once we get some clarity around the right strategic approach for global branding the conversation often returns to the question of languages and translations. Again, it’s a tricky one and much depends on the context, the organisation and their global philosophy.  B2C is perhaps an easier one as they’re almost certain to go with the in-market language and flex the elements to suit. 

The B2B question can be a bit more nuanced and depends on how much of the brand or marketing material needs to be translated. When we’re working with clients in this space, we like to try and figure out what’s the best option for them before we start the creative work. It can give us some useful guardrails - for example avoiding creating brand language that’s too heavily idiomatic and won’t travel well in other markets. If English is the language of their business sector, then it’s often acceptable to develop straplines or headlines in English and translate body copy. 

Alternatively, we’re sometimes looking at full translation options for each market, which can get quite complex and challenging for the brand owner. There are often divergent views on the nature of the translation and how much autonomy markets should get to “say things their way”.  Our advice here is that the concept of ‘transcreation’ is more important than a literal ‘translation’. Always work with good quality translation houses who are able to ensure that the sentiment of the brand message travels. If that means we have to use two sentences rather than one, then so be it. As brand creatives, we need to build this flexibility into our layout grids to anticipate the problem rather than react to it later.

So, there you have it. War and Peace on global versus local and we’re sitting firmly on the fence. It’s a challenging area and usually everyone has an opinion, which can make it quite political at times. Best to keep focused on the practical issues and make sure you’re thinking about it strategically as well as tactically.

To see how we've collaborated with both B2C and B2B clients on a global scale, take a look at our work with Honeywell and Interface