Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Millward Brown's Nigel Hollis - The Global Brand: a review

The majority of books I've ever read on branding are mostly vacuous bullshit. Top of the pile for guff to substance ratio is possibly Kevin Roberts' Lovemarks, crammed full of nebulous, sweeping soundbites, whereas the only meaningful point in the entire book was summed up beautifully in a single "love/respect axis" graph. Most other books on branding that I've come across are written in a similar vein.

It's refreshing, therefore, that The Global Brandby research giant Nigel Hollis of Millward Brown, is completely different: a rigorous study of branding concepts, similarities and differences between consumer behaviours globally, and the business and marketing strategies required to take advantage of these, in order to expand brands internationally.

I should point out that I am definitely not the target audience of this book, not being in charge of global marketing strategy for a major international brand! The book provides a very specific "brand promise" of how to expand a successful brand into the global market, but in reality the book covers concepts that are pretty universal to branding and marketing, making it a cracking read for anyone interested in the way fluctuations in consumer behaviour affect the performance of a brand or product.

Hollis takes a methodical approach from first principles from the start: starting by making an empirical definition of a brand (concluding that a brand is a macroscopic collection of perceptions of a product). Key to his ideas are principles of neuroscience - the way that the brain stores information, breaking it down into knowledge, actions and feelings critical to the way marketers can set up their brands. Hollis shows that consumers' balanced understanding of a brand is crucial to its success: consumer reactions or heuristics to physical cues, functional benefits, an the emotions the brand invokes, are all important features, and a successful brand is likely to be positioned in such a way that all those features strike a bond with the consumer. It seems to me that this holistic approach fits in with the trend for "360" marketing. Hollis says that brands are "clusters of associations" - and a successful brand must work equally hard to enhance the perceptions of all the advantages that brand can derive.

Consumer/brand relationships are dealt with in depth - whether it's the split second heuristics which can sway a customer from purchasing one product over another, to more deeply rooted loyalty. The Millward Brown Brand Pyramid defines the relationship as a sort of journey consisting of heuristics from the superficial (is the product available? Can I afford it?) to the more profound (being unique, or safe, or "for people like me"). The strongest bonds are forged when the consumer feels that there are tangible advantages to choosing that brand which overcome any shortcomings or competitors. If the aspects of a brand which create the strongest bonds could be neatly scooped up and taken across international markets, then global domination would soon ensue. Alas, it's not quite so simple as that.

Hollis goes on to show that a brand's future performance can be predicted by using two measures - existing brand presence, and a Millward Brown metric called Voltage 2.0, calculated using quantitative research, which is basically an indication of how strong the brand's perceived advantages are (I imagine a brand with high Voltage 2.0 would be very similar to Kevin Roberts' definition of a Lovemark). Combined, the two figures give a reasonably good forecast of the brand's likely future prospects; good brand equity is a good sign, but startup brands find it tough going as you might expect.

So far so good, and I found these early chapters amongst the most interesting of all. But the objective of the book is to explore how brands across multiple countries, and here Hollis states his core point, which is repeated throughout like an idee fixe: that successful global brands achieve a fine balancing act between adapting products and marketing strategies specifically to local markets, vs global economies of scale arising from centralising resources. Those that get the balance right, will become the great global brands which "transcend cultural origins" to strike affinity with consumers across countries. But it's a tricky balance to achieve. In developing markets, a western brand may or may not have associations of quality, which consumers may or may not be willing (or able) to pay a premium for. Yet in general consumers will feel more attached to brands which are perceived as local, even if their origins are the other side of the world.

Hollis stresses to brand owners the importance of considering how their brand can create a feeling of authenticity, of resonating with local values, and of integrating with local culture. Much of this, he argues, stems from management technique: indeed management is a microcosm of the book's theories as a whole - as a global company tussles with the advantages of centralising resources, with the local knowledge and motivation that comes with localising functions (I must confess I ploughed through this section full of visions f American films with the FBI telling the local sheriff "We'll take it from here.")

Hollis cites the example of Efes lager, which has such a strong local identity in its homeland (Turkey) that no other brands can get a look in. This, in turn, is due to the company being involved in external projects, CSR if you like, to become a strong part of local culture. Then there is the example of American car manufacturer Buick, which despite being a rather tired brand in the States, was careful to adjust to local tastes when launching in the Chinese market - with highly successful results. These are but two of the case studies which bring the concepts to life bring the theories to life. I wasn't aware of Red Bull's origins as a Thai drink "discovered" and "reinvented" by an Austrian businessman - whose positioning of the brand has barely been changed since. The brand stuck to their principles, hardly amending their product or target market - and also marketing - even when they spread geographically.

My favourite chapter isn't actually penned by Hollis at all. How strong global brands create lasting value is contributed by Joanna Seddon of Millward Brown Optimor and is perhaps the densest chapter of all. The first diagram is pretty clear though: if the share prices of brands are normalised as of 1995 and then traced over time, dividing brands up as "strong" or "weak" according to global MB "BrandZ" data (another metric, this time based on surveys inviting respondents to directly evaluate brands). The strong brands outperform the weak ones by 20%, by virtue of a larger customer base, commanding price premiums and holding a stronger position in the business market; this, in itself, should give the willies to any board or directors who underestimate the importance of their brand strength. Seddon argues that a tangible value can be put on a consumer brand as opposed to its parent company, by a combination of splitting up the company's assets by brand, working out to what extent the brand's equity strength fuels the financial value of those assets (in other words, how important are those heuristics to the brand's value?) and applying a calculation to predict future performance (called, naturally enough, "brand momentum"). Everyone loves a "top 20" and indeed there it is (for the greedy, the appendix has the top 100) and all the usual suspects are there, but what is striking is that FMCGs are relatively low in number in the top echelons. This equating of an intangible asset like a brand, with some sort of strict financial value, is a bold one; the case is made compellingly.

Opponents of globalisation should stay right away from The Global Brand. It is unashamedly a manual for those wanting to sell western brands to consumers in developing countries. Although the importance of not riding slipshod over local cultures is touched upon, there is nothing at all on the ethics of globalisation itself - neither social nor environmental implications, which I thought was a shame, as it is otherwise a pretty comprehensive one-stop-shop for companies wanting to extend the distribution of their brand. Very occasionally Hollis comes across as slightly patronising, but in his defence, everything is steeped in facts gleaned from research, which may conform to stereotype in some cases. This also excuses the fact that the explanations of Millward Brown metrics can occasionally make it feel like a sales brochure - the fact that he uses his own examples for case studies and insight really manifests itself. It's real primary insight, and after all you might as well stick to what you know.

Hollis' clear enthusiasm for the subject matter, combined with his skills for bringing statistics to life, mean that this book, which is grounded in research-based insights, is a gripping read. The chapter on consumer behaviour in Africa, written by two local researchers, is not as eloquently written as Hollis' own work, but still conveys enthusiasm and includes some of the most interesting insights: from the concept of price - budgeting is something that is done day-to-day rather than month-to-month - to status of certain objects. I loved the anecdote of the Malawian who buys washing powder - which conveys greater social status - to place proudly on top of the washing machine; yet she also buys laundry bars, which she considers to work twice as well!

If I had any criticism it would be that the writing loses its sparkle when Hollis moves away from his core territory of insight and branding strategies and onto marketing tactics - it's clear that Hollis isn't a marketeer; the last few chapters of the book drag on a bit, and tend to repeat much of what was said earlier in the book. His principles are clear enough and enlivened by so many case studies that there's really no need to set out step by step instructions for what to do - Part Three is almost redundant.

Ultimately The Global Brand should have universal appeal - while it contains specific, practical instructions on how to evaluate the sustainability of a brand for global expansion, more generally it consists of convincing arguments for how to (and not to) extend the range of a campaign or business into new areas.

1 comment:

  1. Good review and very comprehensive.

    Emotions do play a part in consumption and so taking brands elsewhere need careful consideration beyond business and financial terms.

    particularly like the concept of a balance there.

    Doesn't seem the most fun book to read however, but everything from MB is ace.

    thanks for sharing