In late 2013, I made the decision to move from Singapore to Denver. The choice to relocate to Denver was somewhat strategic: I wanted to experience a different kind of lifestyle than the big city living I was used to, while at the same time have an opportunity to be immersed in a truly domestic market in order to work with homegrown American brands. Although I knew very little about Denver, having never visited, I did know that going to America would be a great adventure and a prime learning experience both personally and professionally. `
Having several years’ experience working in the branding industry in Southeast Asia, with a focus on markets in that region, the United States was brand new territory. From the people and processes to the brands themselves, I have discovered some key differences.
Key Differences in Branding in Southeast Asia and the United States:
Execution vs. Growth
Starting my career in a global hub gave me instant exposure to numerous regional and global brands. It was very exciting until I began feeling like I wasn’t in control of strategic decisions, which are made far, far away, in a boardroom filled with the global brand team. For many international brand managers, much of the day-to-day decision-making is about governance-focused activities, while at the same time striving to stay as relevant as possible.
In the United States, there is a great deal more flexibility surrounding what brand managers can do to achieve true exponential growth. A brand is theirs to do what they will; because of this mentality, I have had the privilege of partnering with numerous clients on holistic experience and implementation work to bring strategy to fruition. Many clients I engage with are deeply interested in the ROI of branding work and its impact on both topline growth and bottom line savings in a way that I saw much less of in my time working in Southeast Asia. However, this concept is evolving, as Singapore is truly becoming the center of many international brands, and brand teams are responding by decentralizing where relevant.
The takeaway? Walking the line between brand consistency across markets (while flexing for local relevance beyond just being a logo cop) is going to be an ongoing challenge for any brand that spans international markets. Empowering brand teams to be accountable for both the strategic and financial impact of their decisions may seem daunting in the short term, but it could be immensely rewarding for brand building over time.
Brand Expression vs. Brand Experience
Southeast Asia is a thriving region for design houses, from packaging, to point of sale, to retail. More traditional forms of physical expression, and brick-and-mortar touchpoints, continue to be highly relevant for consumers, especially those in less developed markets. It didn’t surprise me when clients signed on for a branding program when they were really looking for compelling physical change. This was the case for a Bangkok-based asset management client who rebranded with a new name and look. The work ended after this phase because it was all the organization felt it needed to shift and shape market perceptions. Similarly, with many consumer packaged goods brands, a lot of my work was point of sale, purely designed to make products stand out amid crowded shelves and storefronts.
Stopping at this point represents a wasted opportunity because all that has changed is the symbol. In much more developed markets like the United States, or even Singapore, the advent of the empowered customer driven by the social and digital revolution has motivated brand leaders to focus on providing an experience which delivers on the promise, signaling a deeper change. Digital living almost dictates consumer behavior, and considering brand through the lens of online social interactions has become imperative. Earlier this year, we helped a technology client completely redesign its Web experience based on its new brand, which included a user experience workshop to chart out how different audiences would approach the site and journey through it, then take action to engage with the company.
The takeaway? Digital and real-world journeys are inextricably intertwined, brand teams need to be in sync with how consumers engage, and good design is not the end product; it’s the enabler of a powerful experience.
Local Pride vs. International Appeal
Back in Asia, I was always taken by how national pride translated into extreme endearment for local brands over multinationals. My experience working to rebrand Jollibee, a Filipino quick service restaurant chain, was akin to going up against a national icon―full of strong emotions, rich familial history, and intrinsic ties back to the people who felt that they owned it.
In contrast, for American consumers, the fervor around homegrown brands just isn’t the same. Many American brands are seen as global rather than national because they have intentionally positioned themselves in this way. From humble beginnings, they chart a path to creating a brand that has international appeal. And, in doing so, these brands sometimes purposefully give up some of their American-ness.
The takeaway? A strong, American or local brand can have international appeal if brand teams understand how to connect with consumers on a deeper level. With this understanding, global brands can be localized to resonate across much broader audiences.
There are many more contrasts I could make, but what I find most interesting are the wide-ranging similarities across my past life and my present.
Similarities in Branding in Southeast Asia and the United States:
- Brands are consistently challenged to remain relevant in fast-paced marketplaces.
- Consumers are just as diverse in every market, albeit in different ways.
- Adeptly navigating decision-making processes and organizational cultures remains the lynchpin to sustained brand-building success.
As you can probably tell, it’s been a deeply enriching journey so far, and I’m loving life in the Mile High City. So here’s to more adventures and brand discoveries!