OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

Ah, the brave new world of global branding, as multinational

advertisers push products across borders, backed by campaigns speaking

in the universal language of human desire, until they are embraced by

eager consumers from Timbuktu to Times Square.



Or is that marketers' dream of a small, small shopping world nothing

more than, as the playwright and politician Clare Booth Luce once so

succinctly put it, globaloney?



Stimulating some scepticism about global branding is news that Britain's

Virgin Group has unexpectedly closed Virgin Drinks USA, formerly Virgin

Cola USA. The shutdown apparently ends efforts to establish an American

beverage beachhead dating to the summer of 1996, when Virgin Cola

entered a test market in Philadelphia with advertising from Rainey Kelly

Campbell Roalfe.



Two years later, armed with an in-your-face campaign from a US agency,

Ground Zero, that included a male couple's wedding kiss, Virgin was

rolled out into big cities on the East and West Coasts. The response

from consumers?



As effervescent as week-old Virgin Cola left out in the rain. A change

of agencies followed, along with new packaging and the addition of

vitamin- and mineral-enhanced waters, but all seemingly for nought.



'It's a tough category to crack, with heavyweight competition,' Gary

Hemphill, senior vice-president of the Beverage Marketing Corporation,

an industry consulting company, says. 'It's certainly not for the faint

of heart.'



One major problem, according to Hemphill, is that 'the Virgin trademark

doesn't have the same panache in the US as it has in the UK'. That's a

fatal flaw in a category so dominated by the entrenched behemoths

Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola, which already face lots of challenger brands

sold by the likes of Cadbury Schweppes and Snapple.



But wait. According to the global branding gang, it shouldn't be that

difficult to stimulate sales in one country for a product that's popular

and successful in another, especially if there is support in the form of

ads and promotions. They cite examples ranging from Coke and Colgate

toothpaste to Mercedes-Benz and Heinz beans.



Yet just as the Cold War comes back into vogue, as the nationalism of

the new American administration in Washington replaces the world view of

the previous White House, a more parochial perception of branding

appears to be making its way along Madison Avenue.



Look at Coca-Cola. The company was long known for global marketing

efforts for its flagship soft-drink brand, as exemplified by the famous

McCann-Erickson commercial in which the planet's thirstiest chorus

gathered on a hilltop to offer to 'buy the world a Coke and keep it

company'.



Now, a new chief executive officer, Douglas Daft, has a new

mantra-cum-motto: 'Think local, act local.' For instance, it will be up

to bottlers in local countries to determine which agencies will create

their campaigns.



Coca-Cola's revamped rationale is that it's hard for a global brand to

present itself with a consistent image, particularly when the cultures

in which it is peddled vary so widely (and wildly). The need for

relevancy in local markets requires branding to be decentralised, albeit

underpinned by some core values that resonate in ads as they run around

the world.



In other words, if Coca-Cola is declaring global branding to be

globaloney, what hope for the Virgin version?



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