SpirE-Journal 2012 Q3

Why localization doesn’t always work – Preserving a global brand while making local adaptations

Reader's Ratings:

Why localization doesn't always work - Preserving a global brand while making local adaptations

Outbound tourism from emerging countries is surging. So is a thirst for international forms of entertainment, from American movies and K-pop to Brazilian soap operas. The aspirational middle-class has cultivated an appetite for the cosmopolitan. This calls in question the value of localization. How much localization is right? Does localization always works for brands?

There are reasons why localization might not always work for brands. For emerging markets in particular, the question of localization is all the more important as marketers need to assess how far they should go to localize their offerings and whether localization would work for their brand. The big looming question is – do emerging market consumers respond well to a localized product or do they nowadays seek the cosmopolitanism of international brands?

Localization: Adding local flavor to global brands

Localization refers to the adaptation of a product, service or offering to meet the language, cultural and other requirements of a specific target market. Globalization and standardization of products were common trends across the globe in the 20th century to leverage scale economies. But as far as consumer products are concerned, the era is drawing to a close due to what are seen as diminishing returns. It was said that standardization is essential to retain the values and identity of a brand. However, standardization restricts customization, innovation and differentiation.

Today, injecting local flavor into products is popular among marketers.

How much localization is enough?

Global brands have been practicing some degree of localization for some time. For instance, some kinds of McDonald’s meals in India and some makes of Volkswagen cars in China are unavailable outside of those countries. But there is a dawning realization that too much localization can erode the product’s global identity, degrading their “global brand” tag.

Even in cases where international brands try to localize their value proposition, they grapple with balancing the needs of localization with preserving the integrity of their global brand. Some examples suffice to draw out the tension.


McDonald’s had aimed to customize marketing campaigns for different countries, yet retaining its core of being the favorite fun place to eat. This had been accentuated by highlighting the positive customer experience around the globe.

Marketing campaign

When McDonald’s India introduced a new spicy range of products in March 2011, it launched a new advertising campaign ‘How spicy is McSpicy? ’ to project McDonald’s as a youthful brand that is focused on meeting the tastes and preferences of young customers. The new menu and advertising campaign deployed a mix of social media, outdoor branding and QR codes, which were in tune with the tastes and preferences of the Indian customers.

As for the US markets, McDonalds relied on social media too and featured real-life farmers and ranchers who supply ingredients to McDonald’s. The testimonial clippings sent a strong message to its target audience: McDonald’s wasn’t about fast food, but real food, born of the earth; highlighting the “authenticity” factor.

Product offerings

McDonald’s has customized the menu for each country it has a presence in. For instance, McDonald’s has introduced variants of vegetarian burgers in India, including the McAloo tikki burger and Chicken Maharaja burger. The fast food giant is also offering KiwiBurgers and Quiche de Queijo (cheese quiche) in New Zealand and Brazil respectively, as part of their efforts to cater to local tastes. Despite this, Big Mac lovers can still find the original Big Mac in all global menus.

While maintaining the same core restaurant experience, McDonald’s was prepared to tweak some aspects of the product and the positioning.

Absolut Vodka

Absolut Vodka is a popular alcoholic drink, which positions itself as a niche vodka brand that is focused on being dynamic, trendy and non-conventional. The brand has always built its brand image through unique ad campaigns and unique bottle designs.

It has a track record of successfully localizing its campaign strategy. One success story would be when the brand struck a chord with the Chinese market by releasing its first limited edition bottle Absolut 72 Bian , based on the traditional Chinese fable, “Journey to the West”. This epic Chinese heroic story about Monkey King Sun Wukong, who had the power to undergo 72 transformations had inspired the Swedish brand; resulting in Absolut Vodka successfully launching 350,000 limited edition bottles, which were only available in China.

The above examples show how global brands can use localization effectively to enhance and not undermine the integrity of their global brand.

Naming gaffes

Though the benefits of localization are apparent, there is a flipside to it as well. There are times when attempts at localization can go wrong; leading to a backlash and harming the brand identity. Some of the biggest brands have committed terrible faux pas in the naming process, causing their localization attempts to head south.

Nokia Lumia

Nokia’s recently launched and widely advertised latest offering, Lumia, has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The newly launched handset gathered much negative publicity as the brand’s prized smartphone’s name meant ‘prostitute’ when translated in Spanish. Translation issues in the naming process are something which can trip up many an international brand.

Kraft Foods

Another giant that erred in localization is Kraft Foods. The giant drew flak after it revealed that it planned to name its new global snack business “Mondelez”, which sounded similar to a slang term for oral sex in Russia. This name choice became a laughing stock and was widely debated and criticized.

Uzbekistan Airways

Uzbekistan Airways drew flak when it translated its original slogan to English in an attempt to attract foreign consumers. Though the original slogan aims at wishing the traveler a pleasant journey, the translation ended up as “Good Luck”, and it certainly did not instill confidence in the minds of passengers.

The moral of the story? Translation issues should be considered at an early stage in the naming process.

Signposts for localizing products

Some key pointers that marketers should consider while localizing product or communication strategies are:

The product must be highly attuned to the expectations of the target audience and those who influence that audience. For localization to be successful, particular attention should be paid to the age-range, language, sub-culture of the audience, and the nature of the product.
The brand should find out if there are any linguistic idiosyncrasies and cultural differences that might affect the localization process. For example, does the intended country have humor that is language specific? Are there any forbidden subjects which may come into play when marketing products?
Each brand should have expert judgment in what will work regarding localization of the product to a particular country, and how best to use the company’s resources to achieve this.

Every factor should be considered in detail, as not only will one element, delay or mistake be financially costly, it could ruin a brand’s reputation.

Conclusion: Finding the balance point

While too much standardization can bring stagnation, too much localization can lead to ballooning costs and centralization/ decentralization issues. This much is well known.

What is less appreciated is the danger that over-localizing can pose to the fundamental brand appeal of international brands.

Marketers are divided in favor of and against localization. Though localization is essential in today’s time, there are some marketers who feel that it could damage the overall brand desirability of a global product or service.

Chief Commercial Officer of Burton’s Biscuits, Steve Newiss, felt that changing a product to cater to local tastes may risk destroying the very qualities that make the brand desirable. However he qualified this by adding that, “not only the desire for a product, but also the means of introducing it will be governed by local tastes.” This means meshing the standardized product offering with the local context in terms of promotions and positioning.

He added that Cadbury is associated with seasonal events in Canada; thus marketing campaigns for Cadbury’s biscuits must be built around the same.

The creative tension between globalization and localization will rage on. But the success achieved by global brands who have stuck to their core global value proposition while localizing only at the margins – like Apple – is bound to shift the debate.

Back to Top

Back to Home