globalGoing global is highly attractive. It represents growth and a perception of excellence, but it comes with a challenging set of obligations that many do not anticipate or plan for. It is daunting to achieve a competitively relevant presence in multiple markets with an appropriately consistent set of core values.

Many brands have attempted to be successful outside of their home borders but end up being neither truly global nor appropriately local. The decision to take a brand global or to several markets from its market of origin is driven by fundamental strategic opportunities. These could include size and attractiveness of market, displacement of competitors or the need to protect current margins.

However, each opportunity has considerable brand implications that require attention prior to setting out to conquer the world. It is easy to become enamored with geographic expansion. So often I have seen a company’s due diligence constrained solely to financial analysis without applying the same rigor to culture, language, buyer behavior, current brand loyalties and many other dimensions.

Many companies end up erroneously assuming the brand communicates the same meaning market-to-market, resulting in message confusion. Or they over-standardize or over-simplify the brand, resulting in a culture of discouraged innovation at the local level. A very common mistake is underestimating the monetary investment and the time it will take for a market to become aware of the brand, try it and adopt it.

There is a consistent set of attributes shared by brands that successfully go global. Most already enjoy strong awareness in their market of origin and leverage this when entering additional markets through authentic communications. These brands also strive for a high degree of consistency in visual, verbal, sonic and tactile identity across geographies. They deliver a consistent customer experience worldwide, often supported by an integrated global marketing effort. McDonald’s is a tremendous example of a brand that has returned to its roots by shedding distracting acquisitions, simplifying their core offering and adhering to a shared message globally.

At the same time, McDonald’s appropriately modifies its approaches for greater regional relevance. Restaurants in France are “café-like,” and the menu is tailored to local culture. Espresso is in quick supply, and the chairs are neither molded plastic nor bolted to the floor. This represents a “constancy of purpose” rather than strict consistency.

A brand is not a brand unless it competes along emotional dimensions. Brands that expand should symbolize a promise that people believe can be delivered and one they desire to be part of. Through emotion, these brands achieve the loyalty of consumers by tapping into human values and aspirations that cut across geographic borders and cultural differences.

Adaptability is required if global brands want to respect local needs, wants and tastes. Such brands adapt to the local marketplace while fulfilling a global mission. HSBC has invested in that very message by conveying its excellence in financial services with its deep knowledge of local custom and practice.

When deciding to take a brand outside of its market of origin, management must be prepared to embrace ambiguity. Ambiguity is an undeniable aspect of global branding. Consistency is constantly preached, yet it is critical to allow for flexibility in the face of different customs, languages and purchase behaviors. What is clear is the need to follow core principles and management practices when choosing to take a brand global. However, this is not a prescription for success. As every company and brand is different, these principles and practices will be applied uniquely. What separates the winners from the losers is a resolute commitment to rigorously strategic, creative and innovative execution.

Global branding is tempting and offers numerous rewards, but the risks exist in equal number. Assuming the business strategy calls for going global and the analysis provides support for the strategy, the company must perform a self-examination to determine whether it has the culture, organization and processes that lend themselves to developing a truly global brand.

Originally published May 13, 2013 1:00:19 AM, updated July 28 2017

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Brand Awareness