All branding is local – or – you say potato and I say potato

There’s a funny story about the old George and Ira Gershwin song “Let’s call the whole thing off.”  In those days the hit songs in the US were sent to the UK as sheet music, not as record recordings.  That caused a bit of confusion about the song which has lines like “You say potato and I say potato. You say tomato and I say tomato.”  Anyone who has heard the song knows that phonetically it goes, “Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto!  Let’s call the whole thing off!”

Alas, the original song sheets didn’t have phonetic pronunciations in them so the first British singers recorded the song as “Potato, potato, tomato, tomato!  Let’s call the whole thing off!”  And they were all bewildered why this became such a big hit in the US.

Without the right language, the song fell flat.

The same thing is true for branding.

A brand that is strongly rooted in a local culture needs to find a way to  connect with other cultures as it goes multinational.  For instance, not all “independence day” holidays are the same.  In Canada there is Dominion Day, in France it is Bastille Day, and in the US it is the 4th of July.  Each is a celebration of independence.  But hardly ones with equivalent cultural meaning. While the fireworks may appear the same, the holiday metaphors are very different.  

It doesn’t mean that only local people can make the branding locally relevant.  The logic of that approach would lead you to saying that only teenagers can make ads for teenagers.  All you really need is the eye of an anthropologist, empathy and a non-judgmental attitude.  

Some brands, like Chevy or Budweiser are quintessentially American, right?  Oh, even though the original Chevrolet brothers were from France.  And Budweiser is a Czech brand with the trademark rights across Europe.  So local cultures can make brands local captives.

To get around that Budweiser is sold as “Bud” in other countries.  

Some people believe that the way to avoid this trap is to adopt the Theodore Levitt approach of globalization.  As Nigel Hollis points out in “The Global Brand”

Encouraged by Theodore “Ted” Levitt’s 1983 prediction that the future of brands was global, and expecting to reap tremendous economies of scale, multinationals sought to standardize their brands.  But to their chagrin, they found that the future Levitt predicted had not yet arrived. “

A brand that ignores local cultures in the noble purpose of global uniformity, is in danger of becoming uniformly bland.  

As brand marketers we  must actively avoid being tone deaf.  To increase my own sensitivity, I am actively campaigning for a week in Paris to celebrate Bastille Day.  After all, it is a singular experience to see the fireworks the transform the Eiffel Tower.



Bastille Day for brand marketers

Bastille Day for brand marketers

2 Responses to “All branding is local – or – you say potato and I say potato”

  1. 1 Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe October 3, 2009 at 7:31 am

    I am writing an article about the Gershwin
    song, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”
    I would like to include the information
    you told about the firstBritish singers
    who recorded the song as “Potato, potato,
    tomato, tomato” in my article.

    May I have your permission?
    Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe

  2. 2 rringer October 3, 2009 at 4:28 pm

    Dear Marjorie Wolfe,

    You are more than welcome to pass along the story. I believe that I heard it on the radio a few years back and they actually played a version or two. I never did the fact checking on it, so I do want to raise a word of caution.


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