ITL #288 - Crossing the relevance divide: sensitivity to local market culture

1 year, 5 months ago


Brands need to balance global alignment with local relevance if they are to matter to consumers. By Joanna Oosthuizen.

It is a fascinating paradox of modern media that despite the globalisation of brands and marketing, people respond best to locally relevant messaging. This becomes more complex when you factor in basic day-to-day behaviour like searching the internet, and creates an interesting tightrope for brands and organisations to navigate.

It also explains what we increasingly see as our most common strategic brief: the need to relook at how a brand tells its story in the most culturally relevant way.

Indeed, it is rare that a global brand can roll out the same, standardised message in every market it operates in. Brands that do, face a very real risk of becoming culturally irrelevant.

For this reason, a piece of advertising or corporate messaging that has been repurposed largely unchanged, direct from global headquarters, that isn’t culturally relevant will never really create resonance with the specific audience it needs to connect.  

Likewise, a corporate website cannot casually trumpet the offerings of its international subsidiaries, as if that will have any relevance to its primary market. The subtleties of tone and accent can also not be discounted – as all of these speak to local relevance, and this is what will ultimately determine whether the audience feels any love and trust for the brand.

Clearly an international brand has a product and services offering, a global strategy, a set of brand values, a CI, all of which need to be aligned in every territory. However, if the brand hopes to matter in those respective territories, it must be culturally relevant as well as globally aligned.

This means reconciling local and global messages. There will be times when the two will be equally well received in a domestic market. But at other times the difference in values and current affairs are such that a piece of content perceived as insensitive can have negative consequences.

Uproar provoked by thoughtless cut-and-paste

Recently, we have experienced several social-media uproars over a lack of a diverse and inclusive representation in marketing materials and content. The impact on broader reputation and trust (read licence to operate and social licence to operate) has resulted in fully fledged public violence over offensive material that was more a result of oblivious cut-and-paste re-use than any malice.

Instead, brands that have acknowledged the need for cultural relevance in every one of their markets, and have been able to craft a positioning that is adaptable, and can be localised in a way, will benefit almost immediately. These brands will have one globally consistent proposition, but how they bring it to life, from a cultural relevance point of view, will vary. These various messages will not be disconnected from each other – there will still be a golden thread. Local campaigns and positioning can be reconciled with a consistent international message.

This raises an important issue: the need for local teams to drive cultural relevance. PR agencies, too, must engage with global clients to ensure that their local messaging is relevant and will make the brand matter to the audience. It is a critical part of how PR plays a vital role in counselling the C-Suite and marketing leaders on the unintended consequences of branded and unbranded behaviours.

Knowledge of the local terrain

Running the local office, or being the local agency is not just about taking orders from global headquarters. The role is about providing critical feedback, being a consultant, providing expertise and knowledge of the local terrain.

Indeed, cultural relevance is now more fundamental to brand identity than ever before. It is crucial that regional stakeholders keep multinational brands informed of local trends that they can align themselves with, as well as potential hazards of tone-deaf, or insensitive communications.

Another example of a territory with a very specific culture would be Saudi Arabia, where King Salman recently lifted the ban on women driving. This incremental liberalisation of society offered great advertising opportunities for car companies – always with cultural relevance the key concern.

The local brand representatives will have played a key role in tailoring the messaging to suit the unique Saudi Arabian cultural milieu.  Since the driving ban was lifted in June 2018, there has been some excellent creative work in line with these developments.

With this in mind, content that manages to balance being relevant and aligned is easier to share, and more easily becomes a credible part of conversations. This is how influence is built.  

A good way to strike this balance is for marketing teams to work more closely with the corporate communications people. Insights around cultural relevance tend to come from the corporate comms space. They’re also the ones who will have to clean up the mess after a marketing crisis.

These two roles need to be more aligned than ever. The corporate-comms teams within brand organisations need to consult with their marketing colleagues and to flag potential opportunities for culturally relevant messages, and the risks of uncritically repurposing global collateral.

A lens for assessing value

Content that is formulated centrally, and then distributed to subsidiaries as a toolkit can be useful, but it must be interrogated. There needs to be a lens to assess its value in each country. With current sensitivities around identity, carelessness from foreign-based brands can come off as disdain, condescension or even cultural imperialism.

People will no longer dutifully love brands because they are told to do so. They will develop relationships with brands based on how they behave. They will be disappointed in a brand that clearly has not taken the time to try to understand them.

It’s crucial for multinationals to understand any country that they expand into. That would incorporate the market dynamics, the buying power of the population, but also the people, our history and our culture.

The author

Joanna Oosthuizen is Chief Operating Officer and National Managing Director: PR & Influence for Ogilvy South Africa.


[email protected]





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The Author

Joanna Oosthuizen

Joanna Oosthuizen is Chief Operating Officer and National Managing Director: PR & Influence for Ogilvy South Africa.

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visit the author's website

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