To Build Truly Global Brands, You've Got to Break the Rules

Big Deal: Why Communications, Aspirational Appeals and Global Media Aren't All That

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As the executive director of the Center on Global Brand Leadership at Columbia Business School, I get a lot of phone calls from companies around the world. They are usually from managers who have read my books and are looking for free advice from "the professor."
Be visible: Use local media to build global brands on a grand scale. Consider Times Square in New York, Roppongi in Tokyo and Piccadilly Circus in London (above). They're not as 'local' as you might assume.
Be visible: Use local media to build global brands on a grand scale. Consider Times Square in New York, Roppongi in Tokyo and Piccadilly Circus in London (above). They're not as 'local' as you might assume. Credit: Nicolas Asfouri

"How do I build a global brand?" they ask.

I have always tried to answer earnestly and honestly, but the managers never seem to listen. Instead, most of them hang up and go back to pursuing the same tactics, tired strategies and familiar "best" practices as their competition. I call this approach to business "small think."

I always tell my students that building global brands requires that you think big. And that means you have to break the rules, challenge convention and kill some "sacred cows."

Global brand executives, like many people, are used to certain ways of thinking, certain ways of decision making and certain ways of allocating budgets. "This is how business is done here," they say. "It's always been done that way. It can't be done any other way." When you challenge these assumptions, you will confront a blank face, or managers will throw up their arms, thinking you are out of your mind.

Yet when you question sacred-cow assumptions and develop alternatives to them, you have a chance to differentiate yourself with your global branding approach -- and truly make it big.

So what are the sacred cows of global branding, and what are their alternatives? There are three deeply held assumptions that are almost never questioned in the business of building global brands.


That is, a great product or service or original retail concept alone won't do. You've got to get the message out.

Yet many of the recent global brands have been built without any major communication spending. This certainly applies to online brands -- where the website is the product and the communication. Google has been built into a multi-billion-dollar company without any advertising and, thus, directly challenged brand convention. Starbucks only now feels it needs advertising, as it is reaching a mature stage in its life cycle and needs to compete for market share against McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts. The BlackBerry, one of the most successful recent technology products, used very little advertising until this year. Clearly, the creative use of a product, service or retailing concept can be as viable an approach toward global brand building as communications.


That is, appeal to people's aspirations, appeal to their dreams, promise them the world. This sacred cow is equally unfounded, and its wide use has made consumers question many global branding campaigns -- or, worse, turned them into cynics. That's why Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty" has been so refreshing and so successful.

"There is no way you can sell beauty without aspirations, they told me," Silvia Lagnado mentioned to me when she was global brand director of Dove. The story is well-known by now. The campaign launched in 2004 and went far beyond traditional advertising appeals, featuring women of all ages, colors and shapes. Around the world, millions logged on to "Real Beauty" websites to express their views. A widely viewed YouTube ad spot called "Evolution" showed how beauty advertising distorts our concepts of beauty. It was downloaded nearly three million times in 10 days. Unilever established the Dove Self-Esteem Fund to raise awareness of the connection between beauty advertising and young girls' self-esteem. The campaign inspired women; it did not appeal to a traditional aspirational concept of beauty.

In fact, the campaign was so successful that it promises to change the face of beauty advertising forever. A few months ago, Nivea, a competitive brand, launched a global campaign that mimics key aspects of the Dove campaign.


Even this seemingly obvious assumption, upon close inspection, turns out to be not necessarily true. There is another powerful and cost-effective way of gaining global recognition: by using the right local media in a bold and creative way.

Consider One and Two Times Square, the north and south anchors of Times Square in New York City. They may be viewed as very local media -- but they aren't. They appear in the backdrop of every Thanksgiving-Day-parade broadcast, every postcard image of the block and in numerous movies. And, just last month, during worldwide live broadcasts, the New Year's Eve ball dropped -- for the 100th time. Not surprisingly, Coca-Cola has signed on there for 10-year leases (vs. the typical 30 to 60 days for billboards) and has kept its brand there for 80 years. Toshiba recently decided to advertise there -- and have its CEO appear as part of a lighting ceremony. "Our clients recognize the value of this long-term brand-building opportunity," Brian Turner, president of Sherwood Outdoor (owner of the Times Square anchor billboards), told me.

Indeed, Times Square has tremendous iconic value, as seen in a string of historic images (of James Dean, WWII ticker-tape parades). And branding at these key properties on the block has tremendous global visibility: 450 million visitors pass by each year, and a billion more watch them on TV on New Year's Eve (more than the Super Bowl and Olympics combined). Add in all the events year-round, the merchandising, postcards and photographs in print and broadcast, and you have a pretty incredible "local" venue for showcasing a global brand. Many companies have kept their brands here for decades, recognizing that staying put builds awareness, equity and increasing value each year for the brand.

Besides One and Two Times Square, there are a few others, such as Roppongi in Tokyo and Piccadilly Circus in London, where Coca-Cola has a state-of-the-art LED video display that curves around with the shape of one of the buildings and where Vodafone displays personal messages submitted on a special website at a certain time and date.

Therefore, companies can expect rising demand for prime global properties. The internet and new media offer bandwidth that grows ever more crowded, leading to a lot of brand "noise." But those rare local branding properties that achieve a truly global prominence likely will be even more in-demand.

The message is this: Using traditional communications with aspirational messaging and global media is just one way to build a global brand. At times, you can build a global brand by letting the product or service speak and use little or no planned communications. You can inspire consumers rather than motivate them. And you can use local media to build a global brand.

There are other sacred cows in global branding that you should review critically. For example, is it really necessary to standardize brand icons and positioning? Do you necessarily need one public face -- one spokesperson -- for your brand? Is it essential to centralize organizational structures? Managers need to carefully examine all of these assumptions if they want to really think big as they build global brands.
Bernd H. Schmitt is the Robert H. Calkins Professor of Business at Columbia Business School; executive director of the Center on Global Brand Leadership; and the author of 'Big Think Strategy: How to Leverage Bold Ideas and Leave Small Thinking Behind.'
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