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Brandstand: Brands as countries that unite and not divide

Earlier, we used to associate brands strongly with their country of birth. Today successful brands have transcended political boundaries and are effectively independent countries in their own right

When selecting brands, country of origin is no longer important for consumers. A combination of proven performance, inspiring purpose, appealing imagery and competitive value matters most in almost every category. Strategic outsourcing, access to technology, global expansion and enhanced creativity have made it easy for manufacturers to replicate success anywhere in the world, thus negating the once-established belief that geographic origin is an inimitable source of advantage. Earlier, we used to associate brands very strongly with their country of birth. Today successful brands have transcended political boundaries and are effectively independent countries in their own right.

There are many examples of how traditional sources of exceptional creativity are being rapidly surpassed. Closest to heart is the Single Malt industry where Japanese and even Australian brands are today considered peers if not superiors of the Scottish original. Premium perfumes have moved away from France to Japan, USA and even China. Wines we consume today have moved equally swiftly to Latin America from the European heartlands. The finest crockery is arguably made in Sri Lanka while Switzerland is no longer the gold standard of chocolates or cheese.

In fashion, the scenario is even more telling also in the luxury segments. H&M, C&A and Zara originate from European nations with no proven pedigree in styling. M&S has long shed its British heritage to pursue a universal democratic colour. MAC, the iconic make-up brand, comes from the land of Justin Bieber, Innisfree from Korea and not from USA or France. Super Dry is also from Korea, Forever New from Australia and even in haute couture Tokyo is taking the lead. When it comes to travel, the finest ski slopes suddenly seem to be in Japan and no longer the glorious Swiss Alps.

This pattern continues to technology as well. Not a single successful physical brand originates from Germany and UK and only a few from USA and Japan. Even Korea and Scandinavia, which succeeded the original technocrats, are being overwhelmed by China, Taiwan and others. In fact, the World Wide Web can take enormous credit for this borderless mindset as nobody quite cares about the source postal code. As long as an app is cool, a messenger is functional and a networking site is provoking exciting conversations.

Most interestingly consumers are increasingly not even aware of the country of origin; a pattern proven by behaviour consciously nurtured by brand custodians to fuel the profitable practices of outsourcing and customisation. An M&S shirt can be made in Turkey, Pakistan, India or Ethiopia and every other brand virtually anywhere. In the F&B segment, customers build bonds with Domino’s, Mcdonalds, Subway and their peers -- no longer with the Great American Dream in the form of pizzas, burgers or sandwiches. It will not be surprising if sushi becomes the next teenage rage with little credit going to Japan.

Even in the holy bastion of high-end manufacturing the trend is apparent. Just recently, China launched the COMAC C919 passenger to compete with the Airbus A320 and B737 families, with Russia all set to follow suit. If proven to be technically sound, it may well take a lion’s chunk of the duopoly’s unquestioned dominance. In automobiles, origin still plays a crucial part but only in the luxury segment. When Koreans and Chinese decide to apply their mind on that, the Samsung story may well witness an encore.

All of the above clearly establish that the country of origin is no longer a priority for decision, it has been replaced instead by evaluation criteria entrenched in the context of experiences. Experiences which are enjoyed directly or assessed through the references of peers and experts and which naturally score well on self-esteem and quality considerations. As an exciting contrarian opportunity, brands will benefit by behaving as independent countries representing a set of abiding and attractive characteristics; strengthening their bond with the customer base by learning from how nations build brand equity.

So, what exactly is common between a sovereign country and a robust brand? For starters, every brand has a set of colours which it owns. The logo must be considered equivalent to the national flag in its sanctity, permanence and being a source of unshakeable respect. Then comes the constitution, which in this case is the Brand Purpose. Great brands are obsessive about defining both values and vision in their quest to create a meaningful foundation. The products of a nation are its shining stars, be it people, culture or output, and the same is true for the corporation. Fullest adherence to quality, innovation and impact leading to exceptional creations.

The similarities continue quite seamlessly. Like an elected Parliament, the brand too has leadership that dictates its fortunes through wisdom and insight. Both must fight their own wars, some celebrated like the Cola wars and others equally intense; just like a country every person viewing the brand from the outside forms an assessment that leads to a relationship through firstly emotional and then transactional routes. We must be careful how we communicate as that has an extraordinary power in shaping impressions. All in all, mirroring with imagination the job of a political cabinet in shaping long-term value.

It will be immensely worthwhile for marketers to build their brands as independent countries especially in an environment where people are looking forward to brands giving them meaning that is applicable to life. For this to happen, corporate management must exercise a clever blend of confirmed stability and constant innovation by defining purpose, vision, mission, values and all else that is inspiring and binding. And then forming a book of engagement that is a guideline for every position-holder, which is at no point set in stone but at the same time a framework for defining future activities. Equally important is the choice of physical heroes, both employees and paid image-drivers, who become spokespersons for the entity, the logo like the flag becoming an icon of inspiration playing a valuable emotional function.

The traditional role of country of origin is disappearing and almost on the verge of extinction. Learning from its erstwhile age of supremacy can train us to build brands as independent nations, in turn fulfilling a vastly-needed societal purpose of reducing man-made barriers and connecting diverse populations. John Lennon’s vision of a borderless political world in ‘Imagine’ can strangely be fulfilled by the world of brands by becoming magnetic autonomous entities that exist to unite and not divide people.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of and we do not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)

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