Don’t be a philistine

Posted by Paul Bailey on 27.04.16

We recently spoke to a group of businesses who were in the process of taking their business, and brand, global. There are many challenges when your brand spreads its wings, but one of our key points to them was to ensure that they understood the culture of any new location they might expand into.

When considering a brand we must understand that in embodying relationships’, values’ and feelings’ a brand exists within, and is affected by, its environment. When expanding into a new location this environment includes the people, and therefore their behaviours, habits, shared memories, and cultural reference points. A brand only has any worth to a business if it can help to create or develop a relationship with people. In order to develop a relationship it is vital to gain some understanding of the local culture – what people are more likely to connect with or to relate to.

This isn’t to say that businesses should look to hugely change their brand in order to appeal to different cultures. One of the key roles of brand is to reflect an identity, and so to change entirely in order to work in a different culture would be pointless. What it does mean though is that those leading the brand might look to see if any defining characteristics or values of the brand might resonate more in a certain culture than others. Some communication approaches may work well in one culture, but not so well in others. For example, many years ago we worked with an architects who were based in the UK but also a very large business in Asia. When discussing their digital communications strategy we discovered that what worked for the UK audience, a very narrative-driven approach, simply didn’t work for Asia who wanted as much content as you could give them at once so that they could decide what they would read.

It is also important to be aware if something might cause offence, or have a very different meaning, in a different culture. A simple example of this can be found in some work we did with a UK/​Chinese brand, and particularly in developing their colour palette. Whilst researching we discovered that white, associated with light, purity and innocence in the UK, is actually traditionally associated with death and is the colour of mourning in China. Something as simple as a colour can have wildly different connotations and meanings in different cultures, and so have a huge effect on how the brand is considered.

Much of what we do in working with brand is make use cultural or social cues and build references to them. The semiotics of brand is very important, as it is in making meaning that a brand has any resonance. When opening a brand up to a new culture it is important to ensure it has a relevance within this new cultural environment, whilst remaining true to its defining characteristics.

No brand is an island. A brand is affected by, and affects, the environment it is in – and should the environment change (such as entering a new location or market) then this must be taken into consideration for the brand to have relevance in this new environment.

A worthwhile further read on culture(s) is Edward T. Hall’s Beyond Culture. Hall was an eminent American anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher. In this book he explains that many of the behaviours that we assume are human behaviour, and therefore common around the world, are actually cultural and therefore specific to certain environments. We take-for-granted many linguistic patterns and personality dynamics that are cultural and not global, and once we appreciate this then we can begin to reshape brands for culturally-specific audiences.

Written by Paul Bailey – Founder, Brand In Process | Founder, 1977 Design

Your brand, your competition, your business environment, people’s behaviours – they’re all evolving fast. Brand In Process is here to help you (and your clients) understand how brand is evolving by bringing you innovative thinking on brand from top professionals, academics and businesses, and explain how this can be practically applied to develop your own brand.

Image by Lewis Clarke.