We’ve all heard the confusing mantra. It’s everywhere from management books to the walls of corporate offices. It’s the one thing on which microfinance charities and international hedge funds somehow agree: “Think global, act local”

Sure, it can work as an inspirational goal to dream big and tend to your field; it can even serve as a reminder to keep the big picture in mind while getting the details right – always a worthy ideal.

But (and we do apologise for being prosaic) when you are faced with the task of managing a global brand in a variety of sometimes very different regions, well, it’s just not a very useful piece of advice. What does it mean? Think up a strategy in the global office and leave the implementation entirely to the regions, and risk losing both vision and economies of scale? Or take action by micro-managing the roll-out, alienate the local teams, and risk missing out entirely on local nuances?

In practice, this question can result in protracted negotiations between global and regional teams on where the ideal responsibility cut-off line is, until the deadline forces everyone’s hand. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be this way, as there is a clear route forward for global brands to produce effective localisation strategies, be it for product development, brand positioning, communications execution, or any other part of the brand mix.

“Feel global, speak local”

The most important thing our combined experience of working on global brands, and at multiple levels, has taught us is the value of emotions. Emotions famously underpin consumer choices far more than rational thought ever will; every successful global brand of the last 30 years has owed that success to a powerful, universal, and easily understood emotional positioning, which was expressed with great clarity, simplicity and nuance.

Consider Apple, Nike and McDonalds – for each it is easiest to evoke the core feeling of the brand (quasi-magical ease of usage; effort leading to victory; and shared moments of togetherness), and most people will be able to easily give a local expression of that feeling (e.g. the location of their closest Apple Store, sponsorship of their favourite team, TV ad featuring a socially relevant situation)

We believe that emotions form a universal language, and that today’s consumers share enough (context in terms of culture, day to day environment, and brands landscape), that these emotions can be expressed anywhere. We have found it possible time and again to discover and refine exciting and shared emotional insights across countries as seemingly different as Thailand, Egypt, Poland, Brazil and Greece, whether these insights relate to food and drink, hospitality, health or child rearing. Once this universal feeling is clearly defined, crafting local expressions to convey it with maximum efficiency is much, much easier.

The trick lies in maintaining a clear distinction between the feeling to be conveyed, and the expression of this feeling. Here are a few examples of how it can play out:

The brand essence is usually built as the central thread keeping all other brand elements together, so it makes sense for it to be universal across regions; however that doesn’t mean it can’t be expressed in slightly different ways. Unilever’s “Dirt is Good” brand is a good example: Omo, Persil and Surf share a common premise, but maintain some independence.

The development and execution of communications is often the most contentious point among global teams, as budgets are stretched. Here again, it helps to align which core emotions are at stake. A narrative format will include an emotional premise, tension, and resolution; establishing these at a global level can save a considerable amount of time and money at market level (e.g. McDonald’s). Likewise, any activation campaign must be extremely careful to bring the same emotional payoff by carefully choosing how to bring it to life (like with Spotify’s hyper-local OOH activations).

Product localisation without a guiding strategy can achieve immediate sales at the risk of long-term erosion of the brand’s integrity and value. Yum Group and PepsiCo have both seen continued success through perfectly executed product development campaigns that started by defining a global strategy regarding the set of emotional payoffs needed from all variants (e.g. comfort, adventure, balance, excitement), and then expressing these emotions through locally relevant flavours: balance might be between sweet and savoury in the U.S., between hot and cold in China, between modern and traditional in Egypt, and between healthy and enjoyable in France.

In any of these cases (which can easily extend to packaging, targeting, etc) the principle remains the same. The best local expression is always the one that most accurately conveys the global feeling to the local population. It is always possible to provide some global execution guidelines; but only as long as it remains focused on desired emotional payoff and makes sure any practical instructions are rooted in the language of region.

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