Going native: why your products need to adapt to local conditions
CULTURE British goods and brands need to be tailored to suit the tastes and cultures of foreign markets if they are to thrive, writes Trevor Clawson
Few of us give much thought to the apparently simple act of buying a packet of biscuits. Whether purchased as a stand-alone item or as part of the weekly shop, the process is always pretty much the same. We pop into a supermarket or convenience store, find the right section of shelf, select a brand and then take it to the checkout.
At least that’s what we do in the UK. A snack-hungry shopper in Lagos might go about things rather differently. There the consumer is likely to buy his or her biscuits from roadside traders who offer their wares to drivers and passengers trapped by the city’s characteristic traffic congestion. Alternatively our Nigerian shopper might stop at a small kiosk or table-top stall.
Whatever the source, the experience of buying biscuits is often very different to that of the UK. And as Marcel Willems, marketing director of United Biscuits International observes, shifting significant volumes of products in overseas markets may well require a rethink of one or more aspects of the sales proposition.
In the case of United Biscuits’ flagship McVitie’s products, that has meant retaining the core brand proposition summed up as wholesome treats while adapting sales practices to local conditions and consumer expectations. Thus, the company’s digestives are sold by street traders and stall holders, and displayed on hangers designed for that environment. Equally important, the packaging has been rethought to drive sales. “In emerging markets the biggest obstacle to volume sales is often affordability,” says Mr Willems. “We have tackled that issue by reducing the size of the packets from 400gm to 68gm.”
McVitie’s response to local conditions illustrates one of the eternal and perhaps slightly uncomfortable truths of overseas trade namely that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to selling into foreign markets. Yes we live in the age of globalisation but in the real world local markets resolutely retain their own special characteristics. As such, the branding, advertising, marketing, positioning and price point that define a product in the UK won’t necessarily deliver customers elsewhere in the world. Thus, smart companies take account of culture, customer expectations and economic conditions when they move into overseas markets.
According to Ray Kieser, European group managing director of brand development agency Schawk, market knowledge is the key to success. “You have to know the market and you have to know your target customers, “ he says. “What they buy, why they buy and where they buy. You have to get out there and do your research.” In addition to telling you whether there is a sufficiently large and receptive customer-base to justify launching into an unfamiliar marketplace, your research should also look at how potential buyers are likely to respond to your proposition. By talking to customers and partners on the ground you should identify the elements of your offering that will translate successfully to the target market and the components that may need to be adjusted.
But what does that mean in practice? Arguably the starting point is whether the product or brand name will work in a foreign marketplace. As Allyson Stewart-Allen, founder of International Marketing Partners and an expert in cross-branding issues, reels off a number of brand names that she feels will not travel well. These include the culturally specific US nappy rash ointment “Boudreaux’s Butt Paste”, the potentially comedic Australian chewy sweet “Starburst Sucks” and a brand of chocolate biscuits sold as “Negro”.
Multi-national companies spend huge amounts of time and effort coming up with product titles that are designed to have an international appeal, but this approach also his its pitfalls. For instance, the Honda Fitta was famously named the Jazz in Europe because the original moniker was discovered to be offensive to Scandinavians. The upshot is that it vitally important to get the name right. A quirky name that appeals to Britons could fall on deaf ears elsewhere. A universal name should be checked out for any negative connotations in all target markets.
But as Mr Kieser stresses, names can be changed. Arguably the bigger issue is to ensure that the brand values and proposition will travel. He cites the example of mayonnaise. “In the UK it’s a condiment. In Russia it is used as cooking oil.” So, as Mr Kieser explains, a company seeking to market a range of mayonnaise in the Russian marketplace will have to completely reposition the product in terms of marketing and packaging. It’s not impossible.
He points out that Unilever has launched into the massive Russian market on just those terms, albeit by buying a local manufacturer. Even if the brand values surrounding a product are sufficiently universal to appeal across a range of markets, the appeal to customers may be subtly different from country to country. The Brand Cellar specialises in buying the rights to develop and exploit what it describes as “legacy brands” in Britain and around the world and the company’s portfolio ranges from Glen Rossie Whisky to Dewhurst butchers.
The Brand Cellar’s global brands director Andrew Harrison says that in marketing the brands across a range of countries the company has to balance their universal appeal against the elements that can be emphasised to boost sales in local markets. He cites the example of luxury pen brand Conway Stewart. “It’s is a brand with a 105-year history,” he says. “Conway Stewart pens have royal associations, they were used by Churchill and given as gifts by Tony Blair.” All of this provides ample scope for marketing and advertising but as Mr Harrison adds, different aspects of Conway Stewart’s past will be emphasised according to the marketplace. “In some countries, it is the royal association that has the greatest appeal. In other markets the political associations will be of more interest.” In other words, even if a product is essentially the same across a range of domestic markets, it is often necessary to adapt the advertising message in line with local culture and preferences.
Many products that are thought of as international or universal have quite a lot of local variation built in. The Coca-Cola drunk in Mexico is formulated differently from that consumed in the US and beneath the over-arching of umbrella of the McDonalds franchise, menus and basic ingredients vary from country to country. In Toyko you’ll find the Mega Teriyaki burger; in Finland the bun can be replaced on request with rye bread.
Large businesses that have the resources and the very often the local manufacturing capability, can build market share by offering products tailored to local requirements. For instance, United Biscuits has recently launched a biscuit for the Nigerian market containing nutrients such as calcium and zinc that are often missing from the local diet. For businesses that export from the UK to large number of overseas markets, the scope to reformulate the product is often limited by the simple fact that the volume of sales in each territory may not justify the expense.
However, that’s not to say you can’t tweak the products. As Ms Stewart-Allen observes, Mercedes responded to demand in China by including extra features. “China is a huge market for Mercedes and in luxury models they included tea warmers and rear seat reading-lights that weren’t relevant in other markets,” she says. Packaging and sizes may also have to be altered . Often there will be legal reasons; for instance, alcohol is sold in different sized bottles around the world but local preferences also have to be considered . “In the US, Starbucks sells a drink called Trenta in 31 ounce cups,” says Ms Stewart-Allen. “That’s about the same volume as a wine bottle and it’s not going to appeal in other markets.”
Adapting to the cultural preferences of another country may seem like a daunting process, but it can mean the difference between success and failure. However, businesses should also remember that their own brand or product values will ultimately be the major selling point. “You have to know the market, but also remember to be yourself,” says Mr Kieser.
Whisky from Wales to the world
When the Penderyn Distillery was founded in 2000 the company was reviving a tradition of whisky production that had been dormant for more than 100 years. A decade on it remains the only source of Welsh whisky and having found a niche in the UK it is looking to export markets for growth.
The company always exported small quantities, but in 2008 the company began to seriously target overseas sales. “The first thing we did was talk to distributors in Europe and Welsh expats,” says managing director Stephen Davies. At that point it was decided not to change the branding.
However, Mr Davies says bottle sizes had to be changed to meet the legal requirement of the various markets, while the company also had to be aware of market differences. “In Spain whisky drinking tends to be in licenced premises; in France it is more mixed.”
Penderyn has also detected a different perception of Wales from country to country. “Our labelling has always avoided traditional Welsh imagery in favour of a more modern approach. That has worked in the UK, but in some markets they want something more traditional.” As a result Penderyn may change some of the literature but not the labelling.