What is your company's strongest asset? Proprietary technology or customer data might come to mind. While they absolutely factor into your success, a strong, clear brand identity is what will ultimately differentiate you from competitors, bolster your reputation and keep customers coming back for more. This is particularly true when it comes to expanding your business across borders.
There is a reason consumers instantly recognize successful international brands such as Louis Vuitton or Rolls-Royce. They've truly honed their brand identity – and I'm not just talking about visuals. A business, after all, is so much more than a memorable logo or color scheme. Your brand identity projects your personality and determines customers' perception of who you are. It defines your value proposition and has the power to turn occasional browsers into lifelong loyalists.
This has been my own focus at Sotheby's International Realty. Here are the five steps my team and I take to convey our brand identity on a global level to build awareness, inspire affinity and, ultimately, fuel allegiance.
1. Train to maintain brand consistency.
Consistency has always been key in branding, and never is it more critical than when you are globalizing your operations. Ogilvy understands this fact better than most. With the help of consulting firm Collins, the legendary ad agency rolled out a streamlined brand identity across its operations, which span 80-plus countries. No matter the office's location, all the marketing materials, brand guidelines, online platforms and even office interiors are the same.
This consistency should extend far beyond the look of your brand, though. Every part of your company must offer a consistent customer experience and messaging. This requires robust employee training. Craft comprehensive global standards to thread a central theme through your training efforts, no matter the location. However, you should also tailor your core materials and delivery methods to account for cultural differences, regulation standards and varying customer expectations across regions.
2. Develop customizable campaigns.
Doing business in a different country means you will face a different set of customary practices and languages. On top of that, we are living in the age of personalization, meaning consumers expect brands to adjust to these things. Ignoring this fact can cost you: The United Kingdom's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills found that a monolingual approach to business costs the nation's economy £48 billion a year – 3.5 percent of its GDP.
Learn as much as possible about the market and country you are working in. Then, ensure your approach is customized to the region, language and culture. For instance, when Disney opened its Tokyo park, it redesigned its famous log flume ride, Splash Mountain, to ensure guests could enjoy the experience within cultural norms. At Disneyland, riders sat in a single-file ride vehicle, but for the Japanese version of the ride, Disney widened the seating of the ride vehicles and increased the turn radius of the tracks so guests could sit side by side.
3. Vet all brand representatives.
It can prove difficult to hire the right people to represent your business in foreign countries. Many organizations just send expats – a sometimes problematic choice. Costs aside – which can run upward of $3 million for a three-year international assignment – the failure rate of the appointment is around 42 percent.
You need people who understand the local customs and can wend their way through complex business problems to find growth-oriented solutions. Seriously consider hiring locally. Beyond the issue of cost, local hires will be more productive right out of the gate, as they're already familiar with the culture, norms and laws in that market. Involve your senior leadership team in the hiring process to ensure consistency in corporate values and that each new recruit fits your culture. This personal touch also sets a positive, lasting tone for new hires as you scale your team globally.
4. Address issues immediately.
As in any market, there will be times when a local operator falls out of compliance or receives customer complaints. Address the issue and develop a solution at once. Otherwise, you could find your brand splattered across social media, with 12 percent of consumers now using social channels to voice complaints and concerns. Equip your teams with the right tools and messaging to handle online complaints in accordance with your global brand standards. If you have not yet created those, now is the time.
On the other hand, consumers also use social media to provide feedback (39 percent) and request information about products or services (31 percent). You can improve your offerings and learn a lot about your target audience by way of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
5. Get to know the competition.
Understanding the competitive landscape and broader market dynamics will help you identify your competitive advantage and better target your branding efforts. But it can also uncover unlikely allies. It is natural to think of others in your market as competition, but they may be part of the solution to a broader challenge if market conditions or customer preferences change – and they will. The Boston Consulting Group found that digital joint ventures grew by 79 percent in international markets over the past five years. Of those ventures, 78 percent included at least one emerging market participant.
When you go about building an international brand, it becomes so much more than your product or service. It extends to the experience as a whole. Find a level of consistency and control in every consumer touchpoint. People will not only recognize your brand worldwide, but also become lifelong customers.