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By Dave McCaughan and Faiyaz Ahmed

Brands need to focus on research to understand how their products and services will translate into the context of the market they are entering in order to be successful

Once you have a brand/product/service and you’re looking to market it in one or more countries other than your own, it is crucial that the most important elements of marketing have to be arranged. Do you have a way of distributing and retailing your offer at a price those markets can access and afford? Then you have to think about positioning, messaging, packaging, and product mix.

The BIG rule is: understand the similarities and differences in your target markets. Again obvious but so many marketers fail to do good research. Sometimes the mistakes seem so obvious on reflection. There are many horror stories where brands were launched into foreign markets without checking whether the brand name was not offensive in other languages, or just too difficult for people in other countries to say.

Symbols, colours, packaging designs need to be thought through carefully. For example, while it might seem some colours have universal meaning ( green equals nature or fresh, blue means clean, gold means wealth ) that is not always as simple as you may think. And even brands that have established themselves around a single colour can be caught out. Twenty plus years ago when Coca-Cola relaunched in Vietnam they were caught in a debate with the government who claimed that the particular PMS red tone Coke uses on everything was not allowed as it was the one used on the national flag. It was resolved but a good example that what seems simple can get caught out.

KFC has been very successful in expanding and becoming the market leader in countries like China and Japan by simply realizing that while people may initially want to have a piece of “American culture” they may not interpret the actual offer the same way. In Japan, KFC has done a tremendous job over the last fifty years of making itself part of local life. The product is fairly standard to the USA offer but they have managed to insert the brand into local life. For example, as Japanese people started to adopt Christmas not as a religious holiday but a family event KFC became known as and remains the accepted Christmas day dinner for families. In at least one survey I saw a few years ago the majority of younger Japanese now consider KFC a Japanese brand. Meanwhile, In China, the brand has gone a lot further. When it started launching western-style food was not so well known or liked. Therefore, the brand added and adapted it’s menu to a wide range of primarily chicken and then other “localized” dishes and offerings. Those menu adaptations allowed it to become easily the NO 1 fast-food chain in the country. A model that KFC and other fast-food chains now adapt in many markets. One simple guide to any brand entering a new country might be “what extra value do we offer that the existing market lacks”.

American pop culture brands like LEVI’s, Marlborough, Coke, Mcdonalds, Starbucks all benefited by in some ways epitomizing the American dream as propagated by Hollywood. As they launched around the world they bought an easy way to access “America” and whatever local populations saw it representing whether that was “cool”, “modern”, the “vogue” etc. Certain countries have a reputation and aura that supports brands from those markets when they expand. Highly engineered products from Germany, luxury brands from Italy or France, anything chocolate from Belgium or Switzerland. If you are a brand in those categories from those markets you are going to be listened to in most countries.

MasterCard was a global “me too” credit card brand. It was doing OK, it was in 100 plus countries. But it was mostly seen as “just another card in my wallet”. AMEX, VISA, DinnersCard all had a more distinct image. Then in the late 90’s when your authors both worked for the world’s number 1 advertising agency, McCann, someone in New York came up with an idea. Why not change the nature of the category and the brand. Instead of messaging all around me too stories of travel, vacation, special occasion purchasing make the brand about “Priceless” moments in people’s lives. The little things like taking your son to his first baseball game and how priceless that little expenditure will be for the rest of your life.

Google, Nike, Apple. They all do a lot of cultural research, semiotics, anthropology on their categories, the cultures, the people, the lives of the countries they launch new products in. Not just product testing. That is good and should be done but real research into what makes countries different and similar to your own is really needed. Do that and then apply the other rules.

The thing was that the insight “there are some things that are just worth more than what you spend on them” was a universal one. When you told simple stories built on it with local relevance everyone got it, liked it, wanted a piece of it. We quickly found that the story of a first baseball game in the USA easily translated into a first football match in Argentina, a first Hockey game in Canada, a first cricket match in India. You get it.

If you search deep and find an insight that your brand can own that is universal AND then make sure you present it in a locally relevant way then you know you can make a difference in each market.

At the end of this article we have listed 5 rules we have learned from our experience. All pretty obvious when you read them. But not always so easy to apply. The basis of all success will always be “homework”. Have you done the right research and enough research? For example, we sometimes forget that famous international brands research everything. Google, Nike, Apple. They all do a lot of cultural research, semiotics, anthropology on their categories, the cultures, the people, the lives of the countries they launch new products in. Not just product testing. That is good and should be done but real research into what makes countries different and similar to your own is really needed. Do that and then apply the other rules.

So here are three Lessons Learned from our experiences that highlight universal truths about international marketing :
No matter how true you think your brand difference is in some markets it may be misinterpreted and you need to be willing to adapt your offer to suit local beliefs and tastes. WALMART is the world’s biggest brick and mortar retailer. Very successful in many markets the brand had struggled in Japan and withdrawn from the market. In the early 2000s they tried again by buying the existing SEIYU grocery store chain. They went about applying WALMART’s famous supply side procedures etc to make the business more efficient. But what to do about branding. And positioning. Because there was an issue.

WALMART is based around the brand promise of EDLP (everyday lowest price). It works everywhere because shoppers appreciate getting a deal. Except. In Japan the EDLP concept was interpreted slightly differently. Research found that Japanese housewives interpreted it as meaning something like “we will sell you cheap stuff made in China”. No look at rule number 2 below : “understand what really matters to the target market”.

Japanese people are by cultural inclination and life experience very fussy about what they buy, where it is from, how it was grown, made, prepared. Research again had shown that Japanese housewives are the most likely shoppers in the world to read the back of the packs of everything they buy. So anything that smelled like selling them cheaper options made in other market markets was suspicious.

So what happened ? WALMART agreed to keep the local brand name dominant. Instead of rebranding everything as WALMART it became SEIYU MALMART but on all signage and communication the local name was much bigger than the international brand name. Instead of promising EDLP, communications used a local slang term that basically meant “we love you”. Instead of focusing on cheaper products at cheaper prices, inventive ways were used to illustrate you could get the best deals. For example one very successful promotion asked the public to nominate what items in the stores should be on sale and at what price and the top 100 scoring suggestions were put in place.

A global brand adapted to a tough market and delivered the value it was famous for but in a way more aligned with local sensibilities.

Darlie was a very successful brand of toothpaste in its home market of Hong Kong as well as Taiwan, SE Asia for decades and starting in the late 1990s was making inroads back into China. It was doing OK. But realistically it’s formula for its original family oriented toothpaste and a relatively new whitening variant were not that different from its sister brand Colgate ( the Darlie brand had been purchased by Colgate twenty years earlier ) or other international brands.

How to stand out in China ? Tweaking advertising to reflect typical Chinese consumers and the normal expectations of toothpaste for healthier teeth, social appeal etc were ok but not really making a huge difference. Growth was coming really from expanding distribution. But again like most brands entering a new market getting a new distribution was reliant on the basics of good marketing : trade deals, pricing, special offers. But how to attract attention and demand rather than just negotiate selling another brand ?

It took a few years but started with a simple thought based on rule number 3 below “what are local culture connections you can use?”. Brushing your teeth is more than oral care, it’s part of a whole selfcare universe. In China there is an ancient and well understood history of traditional health care based in part on the use of herbs and other plants that help provide holistic wellness. Could Darlie use that cultural connection?

Tea. Traditional green tea. In China it was seen as healthy for the whole body. A natural way to help ward off problems. A drink taken everyday with no limits to it’s application. Well now around the world we think of green tea based products of all kinds as normal but the period 2003-05 when Darlie started to experiment adding a little tea into it’s toothpaste to offer a more whole body cleansing product that was also a very effective toothpaste was brand new.

The product is called Darlie Teacare. Look it up. It powered Darlie to be the number one brand in China and East Asia. It was all about looking at local culture and finding something you can rebuild your brand offering around.

Maybe a warning tale from here in Bangladesh. If you are an international company (Telenor) with a local brand (Grameen Phone) trying to expand with an idea that has worked elsewhere you need to be focused, do your homework and have a proposition that the target actually understands.

In theory the brand Djuice seemed like a good idea. One used in many places. You want more of the booming youth market so you create a brand that is focused on them. A “cool” youth brand. Be careful folks of the word “cool”. We have never heard of a successful brand that was based on being “cool” simply because it is a word of no real definition. Back in the mid-2000s Djuice was introduced as a service targeting upper middle class young people with a trendy, “I am part of the cool generation” mindset. Lot’s of graphics and logos and messaging about the brand name. Straight away there was some confusion. Was this a fruit juice drink?

Lot’s of activation work on campuses and at places youth gathered helped make them look at the brand but to make it affordable and meet target sales rates were slashed. So now what was hoped to be a “cool” brand was a cheap brand which anyone could purchase. So suddenly a lot of “uncool” people were interested, which then meant the real target group were not. Get the drift of where this is going.

Maybe not enough homework and research. Not enough thought as to how to keep the target happy and exclusive at a price that made sense. A big learning too many marketers don’t get: how do you position a new brand in a new market and keep it focused?

Djuice died. Lesson learned we hope.

International marketing is fascinating. It is full of difficulties. But like so many things at its heart are some basic simple rules to remember. Let us know if you want to know more.

( well based on our experience ) :
1. Understand what really makes the brand work not the name, the packaging, the logo but the real meaning of the brand
2. Understand what really matters to the target market what is similar/different to your home market
3. What are the local cultural connections you can tap into. Maybe people aspire to something from your background, maybe they need your offer made more suited their lives
4. Avoid believing “everybody will want this” – there is no such thing as “everybody” and even foreign markets that seem very similar in some ways will have fundamental differences
5. Do your market research, the failure to spend budgets on thorough research is just a failure of your professional marketing capabilities


THE WRITERS are the Founders of:
Marketing Futures – A knowledge platform where Training, Mentoring and Brand Consultancies Are carried out by international marketing veterans.
For more information please follow us at:
facebook – marketingfuturesbd
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