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Branding across cultures: how to make it work (a true story)

Brands are global monoliths, right? Not really. This might hold for some big brands, but smaller ones can really hit a wall if they misinterpret the culture they are trying to address. Getting it right comes down to some specific precautions.

Globalization has been such a powerful force in the last decades that we have become accustomed to the idea that the whole world is actually just one roughly homogeneous culture. Needless to say, the latest developments in global affairs have shown this is clearly not the case. Look beneath the surface of consumerism and you will still find strong national and regional cultures, with different values and expectations.

Branding experts should care a lot about culture. A brand is not just defined by its guidelines: it gets actually reinterpreted by the context around it, so essentially by culture. Potentially, a brand can be different things to different countries or regions.

Exporting a brand, then, is not an easy task. There are pitfalls and opportunities you should look for. I will give you an overview and share with you a true story that taught me a lot about cooperating across continents.

looking at our own culture for branding purposes

Photo by Vince Fleming on Unsplash

Issue #1: not being aware of your own culture

Culture, is often said, is like water for the fish: it’s invisible to us exactly because it surrounds us. What others would call “culture” when looking at our country or region, we call “normal”. This can be a big issue, with two consequences.

The first consequence is you will not stop to think about some choices that are automatic for our culture but not necessarily for the target. Choices in wording, layout, product categorization, and so on: there is so much a brand could need to reconsider. Failing to do so will result in a dangerous disconnect from the audience.

The second consequence is taking for granted elements from our culture that could actually be a big hit with the target audience. If it’s normal for us to always be easygoing and relaxed, we won’t realize how attractive this could be to a formal and strict culture. On the other hand, if our culture is based on precision and competence we might not emphasize this enough when the target audience actually craves this kind of quality. Some country brands are deeply aware of their strengths, but these perceptions are not always up to date.

To fix this, self-awareness is key. Having someone look at your culture from outside, though, could greatly help.

globalization vs cultures distances

Photo by Shoeib Abolhassani on Unsplash

Issue #2: not getting the target culture

Rather than an issue, this is a capital sin. If you target a different country or region based on numbers (demographic, household income) you are only seeing a tiny part of the frame.

Culture is hard to capture in a data set, so you need qual rather than quant.

Of course, it’s hard to really understand a foreign culture from the outside. Even if you – or your agency – are good-willed, you might get stuck in a generic vision of the culture, which won’t help you push your brand the right way. Even worse, you might end up with a caricature of the target culture.

In the end, misunderstanding values and expectations will result in a failure that will be hard to understand.

This makes it important to find a local partner to “translate” the brand for the local audience.

successful communication between company management and branding agency

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Issue #3: not being able to communicate with your local partner

When a brand finds a local partner for communication, a new issue arises: internal communication. The same gap that separates the brand from its foreign audience can put a distance between the brand and its newfound agency, making it difficult to find an agreement and to make progress.

This can be fixed, too, with the right effort from both sides. I think this is best exemplified by the story of Sublimio’s collaboration with one of its most “distant” clients: Sakari, a sake brand from Japan aiming to bring its product to European customers. Over 13.000 km separate our headquarters. Here is how we made it work.

francesco totti italian soccer champion

Italian soccer player Francesco Totti

A true story: working with Sakari, Japan meets Italy

Our cooperation with Sakari began with an email to Sublimio from Francesco Totti. Yes, Francesco Totti, the famous soccer player, was the sender of an email asking for our availability to help the launch for the West (Europe and US) of a two-centuries-old Japanese sake brewery. Only later I realized it was a real email, inadvertently sent using a personal account inspired by the famed athlete.

After a few email exchanges – and some lingering uncertainty – I welcomed Arito to our (previous) studio, surrounded by the roman nature: a young Japanese man who had lived for three years in Italy, absorbing its culture and irony. Smiling, thoughtful and scrupulous, I instantly sensed we were on the same page. It was professional love at first sight. Speaking about our collaboration, he said “let’s have some fun, let’s enjoy this”. Combining fun and business objectives felt dazzling, fair, and inspiring. And it awoke a novel enthusiasm in me.

I must admit, though, there were unexpectedly difficult moments. For example, fine-tuning the contract took us 17 weeks of email exchanges. Defining the logo took something like 50 variations (we usually need 3 to find the right direction). Not to mention label design: I lost track of the number of proposals. For me – used to see some results during the first presentation – these were tough times. Moments of discouragement, doubt, fatigue. Like all hardships in life, these pushed me to improve and taught me how an apparently similar culture could be extremely different, requiring sensitivity, care and respect. Our task was not to “simply” craft a logo and some assets but to build a bridge between the West and the millenary and articulated Japanese culture, respecting its authenticity but at the same time finding a way to engage the final audience.

Now, after almost two years, I can tell that working with Arito and Nihonsakari proved a wonderful experience, rich in learnings and confirming the importance of humanity and dialogue.

What kept enthusiasm and determination strong was the complete trust and esteem we put in each other, Arito and me (with all of Sublimio’s ninjas). Because also in business, people and their values are what makes the difference.

Arito Mori, Manager of International Division, Nihonsakari

Arito Mori, Manager of International Division, Nihonsakari

Sublimio and Sakari, in Arito’s words

“In Japan there is a saying: ‘Misunderstanding is normal, understanding is accidental’. We even say this among Japanese people, so when it comes to the cross-culture communication, it is normally more complicated.

What I learned from this collaboration, especially when we found ourselves in difficult situations, is that using our imagination is the key to understanding a person from a different culture and to overcoming difficulties.

There are a lot of things that can aid our imagination. Experiences and feelings helped me a lot in the most difficult moments. Having met Matteo face to face, having seen him behave with others and even being able to remember his expressions during our meeting and the dinner that followed, made it easier for me.

We had a lot of video meetings during our collaboration due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it was surely quite useful. But I think that we were lucky, because we had some opportunities to build up our real relationship as humans before going virtual.”

Ready to travel?

Taking a brand abroad takes a special kind of effort. Make sure not to take anything for granted: you might discover some true gems hiding in plain sight.

Matteo Sublimio Founder & Creative Director
AUTHOR:

Matteo Modica
Founder & Creative Director

A tireless purveyor of quality, Matteo manages every branding and communication project down to the details, leading creative teams to always express their best.

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