Forty years ago, there were only a handful of truly "global brands" and they were made up of only the biggest corporations -- Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Colgate-Palmolive, IBM, Shell. Then a rash of upstarts came along, such as Nike, Microsoft, Apple, and Honda, and pushed their brand reputation further than their actual sales footprint. But now that barriers to international trade have come down and the Internet has helped small and mid-sized companies compete on the global stage, building an international brand is a realistic goal for more and more businesses.

"Only in the last 10 years has global business become the benchmark for how you do business these days," says Hayes Roth, chief marketing officer for Landor Associates, a strategic brand and design consultancy that has worked on international branding with such companies as BP, Panasonic, and KFC. "Thanks to the Internet it's hard to keep your brand just localized. Once you're on the Web, you're accessible pretty much anywhere in the world. It doesn't necessarily make you a global brand but you have to be mindful of the implications."

The following pages will detail what an international brand is, how to build a brand internationally, and how to build brand awareness in new international markets.

How to Build a Brand Internationally: What a Global Brand Is

In starting a new business or seeking to increase growth at your current business by expanding into international markets, establishing and building a brand identity becomes essential.

Branding involves what people think about your business and your products. "Think of a brand as a reputation," says Paul Williams, founder of the international marketing firm Idea Sandbox, which helps companies build their brands. "Building a reputation in any new market, including overseas, involves a first impression, which comes from the initial interactions someone has with your company, products, and services."

Businesses can attempt to shape or form the branding of their company or products in many ways, including advertising, media, word-of-mouth, and contact with your products or services. A lot of thought and effort goes into branding, including naming products, designing logos, and ensuring that service is uniform throughout the business. Through continued exposure over time, your brand -- or your reputation -- is formed with potential and existing customers. "A brand is essentially a short cut, it is a way for a customer to get an instant recognition on what the promise is of a product or service and how that will benefit them," Roth says.

The reason businesses spent time and money developing brand recognition is so that they can charge a premium for a product or service. People will pay more for a brand name product or service if it is recognized as a leader and a trusted brand and they know what they will get. Apple, for example, can charge more for its computers than some other companies because of its brand reputation for offering innovative design and quality electronics. The same can be said about Mercedes or BMW automobiles.

How to Build a Brand Internationally: What You Need to Expand

When businesses try to expand their brand globally, those goals don't change. But there are several steps you should take to make sure that your products or services will have a market overseas, that you can maintain quality in delivering and/or distributing your goods or services, and that your business or product branding meets cultural expectations -- and doesn't insult anyone -- in different parts of the world.

"The secret is doing your homework," Williams says. "Like any long distance relationship, it's got to be managed and needs more work than something you can see and physically touch, but it's not impossible."

The following steps may help you in building an international brand:

  • Make sure you have a market. "Proven success with your current target audience doesn't automatically mean that your new target will connect in the same way with your products or services," Williams says. "Ask your new market the questions you used to build your initial business plan." First and most important, he says, you'll want to determine if a market exists for your product. If so, make sure the want or need isn't already being well met by someone else. If there are existing competitors, what (in the perspective of your potential customers) makes you remarkably different? If there is a market and there are no competitors, make sure you find out why -- are there laws against distributing your products or can consumers buy them through other means?
  • Make sure you can deliver. Make sure you can get your product to, or manufactured within, the new market. "Import and manufacturing laws vary from country to country," Williams says. "Ensure you can make your products reliably and consistently available to your new target markets." Investigate the local laws. You need to make sure your products meet the local standards for construction of components, use of chemicals, disposal of goods, proper labeling of products, etc.
  • Re-examine your business and/or product names. In choosing a name for your business or product, you need to be culturally sensitive if you intend to sell in foreign markets. Make sure product names make sense to customers in your new markets, both in English and in the local translation. Williams, who has done international branding work with Starbucks, recalls how a holiday favorite in the U.S., the Gingerbread Latte, didn't sell well in Germany even though gingerbread was a favorite holiday cookie in that country. Sales of the drink increased dramatically when Starbucks began using the German word for gingerbread and rebranded the drink, the Lebkuchen Latte. If you are considering translating names, don't rely on computer translation. "You don't want what you think is an effective name to mean something opposite or offend potential customers," Williams says. "Work with someone locally who can help make sure you communicate what you intend."
  • Give your logo another look. Similarly, review your logo to make sure that you don't use any wording or symbols that would offend in a foreign market. "Ensure that any logos or symbols you use make sense and don't offend," Williams says. "Do an international search to make sure your logo isn't similar to that of another international company." For example, if you are selling products in some Middle Eastern markets, a logo featuring the face of a woman might not be appropriate. The best way to understand these cultural sensitivities is to consult a branding or design firm -- either a local one or an international firm that can research cultural sensitivities.
  • Understand packaging requirements. If you're selling a product, you need to consider the laws and customs and packaging requirements in your new markets before deciding on packaging for your products. Your packaging may use a clear plastic shell that hangs from a rod, but your competition may package their product in a box that can go on a shelf, Williams says. This may put you at a disadvantage. "If you're selling a packaged product around the world there are incredible hurdles," Roth adds. Shipping food across borders may require you to provide more nutritional information on packaging, in more languages, and there may be laws prohibiting the use of certain products in some markets -- even New York City has a ban on trans fatty acids, for example. Learn the local standards and ensure your packaging includes any necessary regulatory information and meets transportation standards.
  • Register trademarks and domain names. Follow the process in your new market to ensure you preserve patent and trademarks. Thanks to the NAFTA Treaty your marks should already be protected in Mexico and Canada, Williams says. If you're doing business in the European Union filing for a Community Trade Mark (CTM) will protect you. Another consideration is making sure the Internet domain name for your company and product are available. You still want to register a dot-com, which is the most popular domain worldwide for businesses. But you may also consider registering domains using specific country codes -- .nl for the Netherlands or .br for Brazil -- if you are targeting only one or two local markets and plan on providing up-to-date translations of your websites into the local languages.

In taking these steps to building a brand internationally, it almost always helps to find local resources to help you understand and enter new foreign markets. You might consider entering into business with a local distributor or retailer in this new market. "It is nearly impossible to understand local culture simply by visiting a country," Williams says. "Find local customers, local translators. Just because you took two years of French in high school doesn't make you qualified to understand the French market nor do French translations. Just as consumers' needs are different in Rhode Island from those in Florida and California, so are the needs of consumers in Paris different from those in Marseille."

How to Build a Brand Internationally: Building International Brand Awareness

The way to build awareness of your brand in these new markets -- and increase sales because, let's face it, this is your goal -- follows the same formula you use to increase brand awareness at home. "Craft and communicate a message that is relevant to the needs and wants of your customers," Williams says. "Deliver this message in the places they are receptive to it, in terms they can relate to and understand, and through the channels that will truly reach your potential customer."

  • Craft your message. Having done your homework and researched the new foreign markets, and perhaps engaged the help of a local firm or representative, you have hopeful honed your domestic branding for this new audience. Be sure to note what the competition and other businesses are doing. "What may have seemed witty or charming in the U.S. may be misunderstood in your new market," Williams says. "Be careful playing the 'old and established' angle. An 'old' company in the U.S. can sound impressive, but you may be doing business in a country that has bottles of wine and rounds cheese older than your company."
  • Deliver this message through the right channels. Don't rely on radio advertisements if your new market is a city in which people commute by subway or bicycle. Make sure you are communicating your message where it will be seen. Think about advertising inside the subway. "What are the habits your customer base in that other country? Where are they found? What is their lifestyle? What are they doing?" Williams says. There is no secret answer. It's up to you to connect the dots and find the right approach.
  • Communicate in the right manner. The manner and tone in which you engage your potential and new customers is as important as the words you choose, Williams says. "Manner and tone will come across through your packaging, advertising, online, through your sales people, and even the way you answer the phone," he says. What types of interaction you will have with customers? What will be the tone you choose? What types of sales process and policies will you use? Even though you are based thousands of miles away, this is still a reflection on you and your brand. Remember that.

While you focus on raising brand awareness, there is another component to building a brand internationally that needs your attention. You need to be vigilant in maintaining your brand reputation in every market in which you sell. That gets harder as your business gets bigger and expands into more locales. "Once you start having a couple of different offices or are in multiple states or countries or you've gone from 10 employees to 300 -- all of a sudden you're not a mom-and-pop operation anymore," Roth says. "Remember, your brand is a promise. You're starting to make a promise that people are buying into and you need to deliver whatever that product or service is."

You need to ensure that your customers' experiences with your product, your business, and your staff are positive. That extends to how you deliver your product, product quality control, how service is delivered or structured, and how your people act. "The larger you get, it's not just you being the representative for your widget," Roth says. "You now head up an organization."

In branding, one bad customer experience often resonates longer than one good experience. "One bad experience magnifies 100-fold," Roth says. "You need to have constant vigilance." You might consider developing an employee manual, investing in online training for your staff, and/or keeping in check how fast you grow so that you can ensure that you deliver on your brand promise no matter what market you serve.

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Helps U.S. companies find international business partners, plus resources.

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A guide to research great global brands.

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Market trends in the coming year and their impact on branding.