The Culture Club: Branding for the world


What do Mazda’s LaPuta, Mitsubishi’s Pajero, and Chevrolet’s Nova all have in common?

They all #failed in Spanish-speaking countries. Mazda didn’t do their homework to find that LaPuta translates to “prostitute.” Mitsubishi forgot to take into account that Pajero means “jerk.” Chevrolet missed the mark with a car model that literally tells Spanish speakers that the car “no va” (“no go”).

These are some off-the-cuff examples of brands neglecting to take time to do a bit of research. All instances could have been avoided with a focus group or just a simple look up in Google translate. These hiccups were costly and avoidable. But while it’s really easy to get things wrong when it comes to cultural branding, there are brands that get it right. But unlike these simple mishaps, getting it right takes time and a deep understanding of culture globally and locally.

The one brand that comes to mind when I think of successful globalization and even cross-cultural branding domestically is McDonald’s. That’s not to say McDonald’s doesn’t have its share of controversy or challenges, such as overcoming healthy eating movements. However, it’s a brand that has been able to make a name for itself across the globe by adapting to cultures through all aspects of marketing including distribution, product, pricing, and communication.

While the one negative association that comes to mind is this idea of “Americanizing” the globe, McDonald’s has found ways to be an iconic staple within local communities.

A closer look at Mickey D’s strategy

I remember backpacking through Europe and the one familiar sight I could always count on seeing was those golden arches. As much as I tried to stay true to experiencing cultural dishes, every now and then my craving for home (and tight budget) would lead me through the familiar fast food door. While I could find some of the classic menu items I knew and loved based on my own experience with McDonald’s, there was something different.

Global Thinking

The first strategy McDonald’s takes is an overarching image (pun intended) that is consistent on a global level. Family, togetherness, and happiness are ingrained in their image, while affordability and convenience define the product offering no matter where you are in the world.

As a brand, you have to identify uniting attributes and values that should be represented across all areas or there will be a disconnect. The story I gave earlier of me experiences McDonald’s in different European countries such as Austria, London, and Germany, show the importance of global success. As a customer familiar with the brand, I can count on my values and needs being met by the brand no matter where I find them. It also makes marketing scalable. Having to create a new overall image for each culture would be costly.

Local Approach

The second element that lends itself to the success of McDonald’s is local approach. They pay attention to nuances and distinctions such as menu items and messaging down to each city it serves. The relationship of food and culture is so close that they are a representation of one another. Food is tradition, politics, socioeconomics, values, memory, identity, and beyond. So as you can imagine the success of a global food chain such as McDonald’s can’t afford to get it wrong. Taking into account the preferences and recognizable flavors, smells, and even dining traditions of the culture, McDonald’s adapts its business model and offerings to appeal to the local community.

But brands don’t have to go overseas to get it all wrong. Right here in the U.S. we have multi-cultural, cross-cultural, and multi-lingual households that have specific needs and values. In Miami, I often find myself craving McDonald’s guava and cheese pies. It is that level of understanding within specific cities in the U.S. that helps them maintain their main image.

So to put it in short, as I bite into a McDonald’s guava and cheese pie that is a specific menu item in Miami (local approach) I am reminded of the warmth of family and happiness (global image).  

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