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When Marketing Bites The Wax Tadpole

Know thy customer.

It’s something that every business owner has had to do, for as long as there have been goods and services to be sold, bartered or traded. These days, the old adage has been infused with new meaning by a globally connected, digitally empowered economy that is forcing brands to rethink their approaches as to how they attract, acquire and retain new customers throughout the world.

The wider the potential audience base is for a retail brand, the more challenges the brand faces in terms of connecting with customers who speak different languages, have different tastes and hold widely varying beliefs. The rise in eCommerce and the popularity of social media have created new demands on the positioning and messaging strategies of global brands.

In some regards, the basics are the same as they ever were: A retailer needs to find its target audience, identify what matters to them and create a message that is both appealing and memorable. The content marketing site Skyword has observed the correlation between wooing customers and making someone fall in love with you on the first date: It’s about making an emotional connection with your audience that has staying power.

Whereas once a single message was perfectly serviceable across a handful of target demographics, brands must now find ways to meet consumer expectations for personalized and authentic messages that resonate. This has left retail companies large and small struggling to position existing products — and, in many cases, create completely new ones — to appeal to global consumers who possess unique cultural experiences, expectations and perceptions of value.

Even something as simple as the name can trip up some of the biggest brands in the world. By putting slogans and ideas out into the world that — while, in the case of U.S.-based companies, they work just fine in English — can easily be lost in translation, and where different cultural touch points carry vastly different meanings, many brands have struggled.

Inc. has some fun with this concept in its article “20 Epic Fails in Global Branding,” pointing out that Coca-Cola (among others) struggled when first marketed in China — as its name was sometimes translated as “Bite The Wax Tadpole.” The general perception of Coca-Cola is as a nearly untouchable global brand, but even it has had to overcome many of the obstacles that face more and more brands as they look to expand to global markets.

Part of the trick of connecting in new global markets is to “think local.” In a world increasingly defined by its connectivity, consumers are clinging to local customs, ancestry and idiosyncrasies to maintain a unique sense of identity. Brands that can appeal to this desire for a sense of local authenticity are winning overseas. Some call it “glocalization,” while others prefer to think of it more holistically as authenticity.

For many brands, the local approach to globalization means relinquishing many of the messaging functions to disparate regional teams. By putting key go-to-market considerations in the hands of people who intrinsically understand the culture and market they are operating in, brands can avoid blunders that might not otherwise be caught in time by outside operators. Both McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, for example, are two insanely successful global brands that rely on local teams to influence strategy in various markets.

As Nigel Hollis, brand expert for Millward Brown, explains, thinking locally has allowed the two brands to understand and meet specific market needs and expand into niches that wouldn’t have been obvious to them otherwise. In Germany, for example, McDonald’s competes with Starbucks for the lion’s share of the coffee market, while in Brazil the fast-food chain offers an upscale delivery service.

“When dealing with consumers of a different culture,” says Hollis, “it is very easy for marketers to overlook critically important aspects of that culture simply because they do not relate to it.” By employing localized teams that are responsible for understanding and meeting marketing needs specific to a region, large brands can avoid a product-market miss.

Social media is also intensifying what it means to connect with an audience. In its “Future 100” report for 2015, JWTIntelligence forecasted many trends to watch in global retail and beyond. One of the more interesting trends happening in social media is what they identify as “Real Aspirations.” It’s a marketing phenomenon defined by content that skews towards lower production values and offers unadorned, real-world accounts instead of the highly polished, celebrity-endorsed commercials of the earlier social model. Casual and highly personal social mentions are the de rigueur of branded content, with products being artfully woven into a celebrity’s holistic social presence rather than hit with a spotlight, so to speak.

Another trend identified in the JWTIntelligence report is that of social media giving a voice to once voiceless subcultures of which brands have more recently taken notice.

“While Tumblr, social networks and blogs have spread information and inspiration and created communities of teens,” the report states, “they’ve also sped up the pace of discovery and mass co-option of niche urban styles — but there are signs of a move against this.” Finding authentic verticals and cultural phenomenons, understanding the conversations happening around them and adding to them — versus exploiting the latest trends — is a delicate balance.

Brands must be able to emulate the cultures and subcultures they are trying to appeal to without appropriating them for their own gain. Bic, the pen manufacturer, recently faced backlash for an online campaign that — while aimed at giving a reverent nod to Women’s Day in South Africa — instead placed the company’s proverbial foot in its mouth. (The ill-conceived message essentially came off as, to succeed, women should look like pretty girls but pretend they have smart man-brains.) The uproar on social media was fierce and, while the company’s response was swift, Bic ended up having to apologize for “offending everybody” — definitely not the ideal outcome for any company trying to sell a product.

What’s clear is that the art of connecting with customers has shifted from finding the singular, across-the-board brand message to finding the right message — for the right audience, at the right time. Inherently, though, the formula is one that will continue to evolve. While some brands seem to navigate these murky waters with ease, many others flounder to connect with audiences in an authentic way.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that, for every “wax tadpole” and #Bicfail, there is a lesson to be learned. As more brands become savvy global players, there will emerge more sophisticated models and complex solutions to be emulated.

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