Brands Are National, But Customers Are Local

Posted on December 5, 2011

Brands should embrace localisation, but they’re too obsessed with ‘the big idea’. 

A few weeks ago I read a very interesting article in The Guardian by Paul Kingsnorth on how the world’s obsession with size and scale has played a significant role in the financial mess that we are all in. Kingsnorth argues that it is a crisis caused by growth – not the lack of it (as is the usual wisdom) but too much of it. He quotes economist Leopold Kohr, whose 1957 book The Breakdown of Nations put forward the notion that ‘small states, small nations and small economies are more peaceful, more prosperous and more creative than great powers or superstates.’

There are some important parallels here with the work I do in brand localisation, most notably that it utilises a bottom-up driven communication model that encourages and nurtures input at a local level. This democratisation of the marketing model allows the organisational equivalent of small states and economies (regional/local managers) to flourish and, as long as each one is properly trained, supported and bought into the brand’s values, will create a formidable national presence.

We’re beginning to see this with some of the more enlightened brands who have recognised the importance of localisation, but there are still a number of barriers preventing others following suit. One of these is the mentality of many of the large ad agencies. For the best part of the last 30 years, marketing and brand strategy has been characterised by a one size fits all mentality that has been seized upon and driven by the large global ad agencies who have become dependent on it. ’360° communication’ some of them like to call it, or ‘the big idea’. This is, however, incompatible with the reality of localisation which requires multiple ideas executed in multiple ways.

This is not an argument against ad agencies, as they provide a critically important function for the brands they represent and should continue to do so. What needs to change is the balance between national and local priorities which currently stands at 90:10 in the former’s favour and favours scale at the expense of consumer engagement and action. Genuine localisation is beyond the capability of most ad agencies simply because they don’t have the appropriate operational structure to support it and their obsession with the bigger picture prevents proper exploration of a channel that could transform their clients’ marketing strategies.

I feel strongly that many brands would benefit immensely if they adopted some of Kohr’s principles and focused less on scale and more on engagement. Localisation provides the perfect model through which to do this, but it takes courage and a desire to innovate, two things that don’t come naturally to the majority of Marketing Directors whose default position is to play it safe and stick to what they know. In some respects I don’t blame them but, if they keep doing what they’ve always done they’ll keep getting what they’ve always got, and I’m not sure that’s a suitable strategy in one of the most difficult economic environments in living memory.

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