Going Global: Defensive vs disillusioned

Rolling a brand out internationally requires more than just clever brains and logistical knowhow.

Database management has reached higher, more intuitive levels. Semiotic planning has opened up a whole new level of cognitive awareness. We claim to know our consumers inside out. Yet many marketers all over the world are harbouring a niggle. A great big festering niggle, to be precise. It seems that for all the insight at our fingertips, there's a frustration in our ability to communicate and realise the full potential of the brand. And sitting at the epicentre of this thorny issue is the centrally developed campaign.

Now, how you view centrally created campaigns depends on which office you are sitting in right now. If you are in head office, you could well be frustrated that your fabulous marketing communication material is failing to reach the light of day. Meanwhile, if you are out in the markets, you're probably exasperated by how many of the materials you've been asked to use by HQ can be so out of touch with what your local customers need and respond to. What part of "not understood here" did they not understand? It's an emotional stalemate. Defensive vs disillusioned. Where next?

Let's turn our attention back to the brand. Brands today are being challenged to globalise in increasingly short timeframes, driven by interest-based marketing that transcends geographical and cultural barriers. Mother HQ has never had her hands so full. The brands that are winning get under the skin of human motivations. Music and sport sponsorship are the most obvious. Smart advertisers (with deep pockets) can't fail to notice that Formula One sponsorship will get you a global reach of 55 million people per race and a positive high performance association across a wide demographic.

Global campaigns based on broader "human needs" positioning, such as Dove's "campaign for real beauty" and Persil's "dirt is good", go a step further. The creators maintain that the human truth behind the ideas make it easier for the brand to move beyond executional uniformity and engage in longer, deeper relationships. Finally, if you want positive association gold, alignment with an educational or environmental cause is hard to beat.

So that's it. Brands do flourish under central control. So, do our marketers in global HQ have a right to feel annoyed that their ready-to-go campaigns are ignored? Well, yes and no.

In our experience, you still don't need to travel far to stumble upon the kind of global campaign ideas that are so diluted they are practically meaningless. More critically, even when HQ does create a dazzlingly effective launch campaign, maintaining momentum is another matter. The customer journey has only just begun and already the cracks begin to show.

To engender true loyalty to your brand, you need to be intimate with the local environment and culture that surrounds it. You need to anticipate every mood and be lithe enough to respond accordingly. The only way to do this is on the ground, talking to sales teams, third party distributors and customers alike. It's not something you can do through the anonymity of phone or e-mail. Without a level of eye-to-eye intimacy, key insights and behaviours can easily be missed, as this little anecdote demonstrates.

Some time after the successful launch of a car brand in the Middle East, something alarming was being reported. A number of frustrated customers were coming into the dealership with warranty issues - the car was not performing as expected. On questioning whether or not the vehicle had been serviced regularly, the owners gave a look of bemusement. Regular servicing? Maintenance? The penny dropped. In parts of the Middle East, they simply don't believe in the need for regular servicing and maintenance that the West takes for granted. Clearly, the brand had much more to do than just sell a car. It had to create awareness of the need to take care of a car.

What's worrying about this example is how easily a frosty stand-off between local and global marketing teams could have prevented this insight from appearing on the radar.

So, isn't this where agencies with local networks win the day? Aren't they the ones to smooth the communication process? They should be. However, under increasing pressure from the speed at which markets are emerging, the race to build local competence and respect is tempered by infrastructure. Hands are tied. From our experience, the pervasive influence of agency head office often leaves local agencies compromised and with little power to act on local insight. So, unsurprisingly, the "one size fits all" approach gets sanctioned. Of course, you can't have 100 different approaches. But you can build in flexibility driven by market insight (trust us, you can!).

To break down the stalemate between "defensive of global HQ" and "disillusioned local", you have to see the irony of it all. In the relentless search for the human insights that make brands stronger, our own behaviour has become less intuitive. The basics behind good communication are being neglected. We default to hiding behind sophisticated brand tools, that, while useful, are not definitive. A brand's journey is littered with inconvenient truths in local markets. And we understand that more than most, having brokered the "marriage" between central and market teams in more than 40 countries.

There's no magic set of guidelines for getting the job done. For us, it's about good old-fashioned humility. It's about being on the ground; understanding the dynamics of the relationship, listening to issues and concerns and sharing best practice. It's about having a face-to-face chat, rather than pinging off another piece of defensive research. It's about reminding ourselves that a challenge isn't a personal affront and that bending rules often makes them stronger. Of course, like most mind-numbingly obvious things, it takes an outsider to notice them and give a balanced view. Now, wouldn't that be a good role for an agency?

- Randy Weeks is the managing director, and Mick Stoves is the director at Palmer Hargreaves Wallis Tomlinson.