Global Branding vs. A World of Unique Cultures

Last night I was asked about how global branding is reconciled with the real differences between cultures and countries.  I was asked this by half a dozen people who had lived in China, Israel, Singapore, France and Queens (okay, the outer boroughs of NYC are only a foreign country to people who live in the City).

Some context — last night I was at the Media Networking Night up at Columbia University.  It drew a large crowd to Low Library, a group of people from about as many cultures as you could imagine.  The purpose of the evening was for students and alumni to meet with executives from a wide range of media companies, including ABC, MTV Networks, Nippon TV, Random House, NY Times, The Barbarian Group, Ruder-Finn, New York Design Center, Tribeca Film Institute, Epic Records, AOL, Huffington Post, Digitas — and Verse Group!

So back to the Global vs. Cultural question.  The simple answer is that there is no simple answer.  And that is important because what works for IBM will not work for Kellogg’s.


Consider that IBM is selling to IT professionals — people who tend have have more in common in terms of their education, needs and specialized technical language (generally in English).  IBM is also selling products that are almost identical around the world, with compatible protocols so they mesh with other systems in different countries.  Culture has relative low influence on attitudes about IT.

Kellogg’s is selling food to a wide range of people in each country, old and young, tall and short, across all the usual markers of socio-economics.  Culture has a huge influence on taste preferences, foods people eat, even when they eat.  In Battle Creek people eat cold breakfast with milk, milk, milk.  In China they eat a hot breakfast, and drink relatively small amounts of milk.  The low milk drinking is a combination of high levels of lactose intolerance as well as a culture where milk was very expensive so eating habits evolved without it.

Here we touched on two of the considerations in global branding:

1. Product category: weak influence of culture in IT infrastructure or strong influence like food.

2. Target audience:  similar across countries like IT engineers or diverse like the general populations.

Now try explaining that in a throng of hundreds of people in the echoing acoustics of Columbia’s Low Library!

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