Sometimes we hope that cultural differences do not exist. Not only can we share the same values, it makes life so much more peaceful.

The reality, however, is never like that.

We are also living in the culture of sharing. What happens in one country, is all very easy to be shared globally.

It has just been reported that in the Saudi Arabian version of the 2013 Ikea catalogue, all images of women, including the photograph credit of a female designer and depiction of family scenes throughout the catalogue, have been mysteriously retouched.

You can see the comparison of the visuals in the below images which were taken directly from the pages of the catalogues in UAE and UK.

This is not just the case of misinterpretation of images – such as the digitally retouched photos of Julia Roberts and Christie Turlington in an ad campaign for L’Oréal (which was subsequently banned in the UK)

The case with Ikea this time is more than that. It has to do with the representation of the role of female in families and society. I am not surprised that it had created such a stir and debate – and rightly so.

For a brand that had consistently scored well from the innovative urban planning projects ‘Ikea-land’ to the widely published and popular catalogue, Ikea’s globalisation strategy had always been a textbook case study. In April 2012, AdMap published a ‘Meaningful Marketing’ report and praised IKEA “makes numerous meaningful connections with people, at an economic, intellectual, organisational, spiritual and emotional level” and had registered on top of the Meaningful Brands Index across all markets.

So what went wrong?

Localisation of marketing communications is nothing new. In fact it is something I am dealing with on a daily basis. Especially in the lifestyle category, global brands do sometimes need to adjust the ‘product’ when selling in a different country. From formula of food products to the message in marketing campaigns, customisation is what is needed.

It is also not uncommon to ‘localise’ marketing materials to fit local cultural norms, we are not just talking about changing the font or layout, but strategically curate it to bring out the best of what the brand is to the local market. What’s ‘design-led’ in one country could be ‘price-driven’ in another.

The lessons learnt from the Ikea case was that the executional treatment was based on stereotypical depiction of a culture. I am quite convinced that the production team involved at Ikea had done this with no intention to offend. It was likely that in this case, localisation has been boiled down to be just a technical process – just doing, not thinking.

Here are 5 tips when developing content for products on a global scale:

  • Implementation cannot be completed without a phase of proper planning
  • ‘Repurpose’ should not be just about execution (resizing, reformatting or retouching), it should be rethinking of the relevancy of the product and message
  • Avoid cut corner solutions. Plan ahead for the production across all markets involved and discuss requirements of additional production, such as photo shoot, for each market. If planning were done upfront, costs will be easier to manage.
  • Plan certain aspects of the production to be done locally with a flexible global guidance, such as sourcing local talent in-market
  • Involve your local marketing team even when the global strategy is coming from topdown

And one last tip – even though there is no such thing as ‘global consumer’, under the watchful eyes of social media, everything is transparent.

What do you think?

I stumbled upon an image on facebook recently and it had stuck in my mind for a long time. It’s a facebook page of InterContinental Hotels where guests post snapshots of the hotel from all over the world. It’s a fantastic collection not because it is completely from the eyes of the consumers; it also illustrates one interesting thing – the hotel looks and feels so differently in each market.

This got me thinking…how does brand consistency apply in this context? Is consistency really relevant after all? Or perhaps we need to redefine the conventional definition of consistency?

What about global brand guidelines? We often hear branding specialists emphasize that in order to maintain global brand consistency, local markets need to be provided with over-arching guidelines about presentation, logo use, images and tone of brand messages, often in a manifesto or marketing book. However, many of these brand guidelines are over simplifications or generalizations that often have not allowed the breath of thinking.

I think consistency is an attitude. It’s more about the ‘how’ than ‘what’.

Intelligently local

As brands become more national, multinational or global, they realize that not all the consumers in each market have the same needs.  The need for global brands to be transformed and make sure they are locally relevant is increasingly important. In the travel industry, for example, hotel brands have been increasingly adapted to the local needs.

Accor has revamped its Grand Mercure brand in China, offering products and services tailored for local clientele, in a move aimed at taking advantage of the booming upscale domestic travel market.

Grégoire Champetier, chief marketing officer of Accor said “Our clients are now expecting brands capable of understanding the diversity and the complexity of their identity.”

The re-engineered branding for Grand Mercure, referred to in Mandarin as Mei Jue (美爵), was unveiled at the inauguration of Grand Mercure Shanghai Zhongya, the first hotel adapted to the new positioning. The group’s nine other similarly branded properties in China are due to adopt the new identity.

In Shanghai, employees will be conversant in the local Shanghainese language (a dialect that is class-defining in mainland China), and guests will be welcomed by staff wearing Qipao, a traditional evening dress (Think Maggi Cheung in the Mood for Love).

All local staff will be identified with name badges bearing firstly Chinese characters, followed by a pinyin equivalent enabling them to use their given names rather than adopting foreign equivalents.

Other signature services include daily Tai chi lessons, and complimentary head and shoulder massages (Chinese style presumably) for guests staying on premium floors.

The Grand Mercure brand provides Accor with a fresh platform for organic upscale expansion throughout the country. The opportunity for organic growth in the upscale hotel segment in China is one of the largest in the world. Accor’s tailor-made Grand Mercure product has already garnered great support from hotel owners. Accor currently operates 10 Grand Mercure hotels in the country. Accor has confirmed commitments for 10 additional hotels, and announced that it will expand its network to around 65 hotels in tier 1 to tier 3 cities throughout China by 2015.

Authentic global

The concept of globalization often carries a dose of negativity. By definition, globalization means the ‘process by which the peoples of the world are incorporated into a single world society’, which indicates the process of standardisation. However, in an increasingly interconnected global economy, many of us cherish our local roots. Some global brands understand that and promote ‘now localism’ in their brand strategy.

Hotel Indigo is what IHG considered to be their nearest to a non-hard brand.

As their CFO of EMEA and head of development for Europe for IHG, Paul Edgecliffe-Johnson, once said “A good brand is one that does a lot of research into what consumers want and designs something around that”. In fact they have put this in practice and bring in the feeling of the locale wherever they go. For example in Liverpool, the hotel focus on the music scene, in Shanghai it captures a strong Chinese-feeling.

Bart Carnahan, senior VP for acquisitions and development of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide once commented on the pros and cons of hard branding versus soft branding: “St. Regis for us is hard-branded—you know what you’re getting”. Luxury Collection is getting close to these white brands, it has some core consistencies throughout those brands, but it gives more breadth to owner developers, so it’s not so rigid. Carnahan said Starwood’s upscale brands have to have local designs to get that eclectic local feeling and the company wants some of the luxury brands to be.

Not just local, it’s your neighbourhood

Going one step further, the notion of ‘place’ is such a core of the proposition that certain brands has gone all out to adapt to local market needs. Statbucks is one such brand. In Seattle, 15th Avenue Coffee & Tea looks nothing like a Starbucks. But, this new café, named after the street where it is situated, is a Starbucks. Starbucks has decided to un-brand it’s newest location in Washington DC. By featuring local entertainment, sourcing from local bakeries and donating leftover food to the local parish, these new un-branded cafés aim to integrate themselves into the fabric of the neighbourhood.

Consumers are turning away from the allure of globalization and massive brands for the comfort of localization. In the US, we stand poised to see the resurgence of neighbourhood. How can your brand capture local character and appeal to consumers’ by providing them with a greater sense of identity and belonging?

Here, I am leaving with you some food for thoughts:

What consistency means in global brand management nowadays? Does it need to be redefined?

If brands need to be localized, what are the impact in the process of creating and implementation of global campaign?

If one-size-fits-all marketing tactic does not work for certain product categories, what are the implications of adapting global ideas for local markets?

What do you think?