The local origins of a global brand are an important part of its DNA, but most of all they can be a fundamental communication asset. But what does it mean to link back to one’s country?
Does nationality matter for a global brand?
We’ll answer with a well-known joke that goes like this: “Heaven is where the police are English, lovers are French, mechanics are German, chefs are Italian and it’s all organized by the Swiss. Hell is where the police are German, lovers are Swiss, mechanics are French, chefs are British and it’s all organized by the Italians.”
While being loaded with stereotypes, this paragraph is a clear example of what country branding is. Whether we like it or not, countries are brands: after all, just like commercial brands, nations are not tangible objects but shared concepts, conventional entities. And just like brands, they have some recognized features and values. There is also an annual report monitoring the “power” of various country brands, the Country Brand Index.
Can the values of a country be transferred to its local brands? Yes, with some precautions.
First level: typical local products
The first way a global brand can exploit its national belonging is also the most commonplace: some countries hold primacy in some product categories, so that they can even become synonymous with the product itself. Swiss watches. Belgian chocolate. Italian coffee. For producers falling into these categories and having the right nationality, it would be criminal not to highlight it. Hence the value of the “Made in…” labels.
But you can risk becoming a stereotype, a postcard. It’s vital, then, to communicate it without overdoing it. Most of the time, even just the “sound” of the global brand’s name is enough to convey its origins.
Second level: the country-brand values
Looking beyond the simple “typical products”, each country is more generally associated with various kinds of abstract values that can be transferred to local brands as they become global brands.
For example, the proverbial precision that is credited to the Swiss doesn’t have to be limited to watch-making, but can be extended to every product and service where precision is a value. Swiss lasers? Sounds good! This kind of nationality exploitation (conventional values applied to non-typical products) is by far the most interesting, but also the one that requires deeper thinking.
Looking at one’s country with the eyes of an outsider
If the country-product pairing is the same for everyone (the Swiss are great watchmakers from every point of view) the value attribution can change based on the beholder. France is synonymous with haute cuisine for the British audience, but it’s harder to position it that way in the eyes of the Italians, their archrivals in culinary affairs. Think about the different meanings that Japan can have for a European audience and for a Chinese audience.
Just thinking in terms of “local/foreign” can be too simplistic: we should always keep in mind what countries/regions we are addressing, so that we can have a clearer idea of the image that these audiences associate with our home country.
Keep your eyes on the evolution of country brands
One of the risks of applying a country brand in a mechanical way is to overlook recent evolutions.
National brands undergo a continuous change in the way they are perceived and categorized. In the 60s, a “Made in Japan” label would be considered synonymous with cheap quality. In the 70s and 80s, thanks to the amazing technological effort of the country, everything changed. Today, the “Made in Japan” label is a high-quality mark. A similar evolution could happen to the “Made in China” label. Also, think of how Scandinavian countries secured themselves a reputation as “hi-tech regions”.
The country brand as an impediment
The nationality of a product or service can also play against it. As our initial joke proves, some countries are considered – rightly or wrongly – less versed in some areas.
Said otherwise, it’s harder to sell Spanish technology than German: not because high-quality tech brands couldn’t exist in Spain, but because this is not generally considered a technological country compared to Germany. In these situations, a country’s reputation can negatively impact the global brand: it can be wiser to opt for an international identity and tell about the brand’s origins as part of more articulated storytelling.
Reinterpreting the country brand
Another possibility is to differentiate a global brand by presenting a less-known image of one’s country. This approach makes sense for overexposed countries that have many brands channeling their values. In this case, the country has slowly evolved into a bidimensional stereotype, and brands that refer to it tend to look all quite similar. Adding less-known values to one’s country profile can be an interesting communication idea.
For the Japanese sake brand Sakari, Sublimio explored the values of conviviality and joyfulness, which are not usually associated with Japan.
Beware to add without destroying: foreign observers will be happy to widen their understanding of a certain country, but not willing to question it all together. For example, a Swiss global brand could prove that its country is both precise and passionate. It would have a harder time, though, to present it as passionate rather than precise.
Foreign branding: the country brand as fiction
In some cases, the country brand is evoked without an actual belonging.
Think of Häagen-Dazs ice cream: the brand is 100% American, but the name was picked to sound European, as it would add value in the eyes of American consumers. A similar consideration could be made for Nespresso, which employs many apparently Italian “signals” (just think of the name on the pods, like Roma or Fortissio), even though it’s a product from the Swiss group Nestlè.
This widespread practice is known as foreign branding: it’s not unfair, but you should be careful not to pass the threshold of deception. Evoking a world with superficial cues (name, treatment, location) can be legitimate, but it’s very easy to end up being a fraud.
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