By Scott Mason, head of strategy, StormBrands.

What does the future hold for global brands? For most of our lifetimes, increasing globalisation has been the prevailing trend. We hop on an aeroplane, communicate via email, eat strawberries in December. The pandemic, however, has thrown into sharp relief the rise in geocentric consumer thinking. So what can global brands do to address that and re-establish consumer loyalty?

Globalisation’s weaknesses and fragilities have been exposed like never before. The international infrastructure made it easier for the coronavirus to reach all four corners of the world, and vulnerabilities in supply chains have been revealed in the race to get PPE to the right people. Lockdown has also provided many of us with an opportunity to think about how we go about our lives – what we consume, how much of it, where it comes from, and at what cost.

But global brands were facing strong headwinds well before the pandemic. One reason is that local brands have been winning hearts and minds for years now. Kantar’s fifth Brand Footprint study found that local brands were growing 50 per cent faster than global ones.

Add category fragmentation, the rise of e-commerce and retailer power, the growth of private labels, and concerns over supply-chain transparency and the environment, and it’s clear alarm bells have been ringing for years. The coronavirus is simply acting as a massive wake-up call.

Global meets local

What’s happening around us today is undoubtedly shocking, but the most successful brands will be those that use this time to rethink how their core global assets can better flex to suit locally relevant nuances. Now’s the time to relook at where the equity in your brand lies and ascertain whether those attributes are still relevant, and how they can be communicated at home and away.

Research methods play a pivotal role here. It may well be a small world, but you don’t really know what’s going on thousands of miles away unless you go there and truly live it. An effective and dynamic solution that gets brand teams close to the audience they’re designing for is the pop-up agency.

We did multiple stints in Pakistan for Peek Freans, the biggest biscuit brand in the country. There’s no way we’d have fully understood the role of that brand from our desks in London – that biscuits aren’t just a treat, for some they’re an essential source of nutrition. It’s essential to dig deep to fully appreciate consumption rituals, preferred flavour profiles, people’s aspirations.

Key areas of concern

In order to survive and thrive we need to create a bridge between standardisation and localisation. Global brands still have in their favour scale and might. Now’s the time to leverage all that and organise collective market insights to increase value for consumers.

There are key areas that every brand manager needs to address. First, how can you refresh aspirational appeal beyond basic product fundamentals? What is the universal purpose that sets your brand apart from others in the category, and how does that work across multiple territories?

Imposing your values on another culture won’t work. Identity goals and consumption rituals are so varied, and brands need to reflect that. Understanding local idiosyncrasies was a key part of our recent brand strategy for Tropicana. The iconic image of a striped straw puncturing a piece of fruit (‘straight to the good stuff’) works in some countries, where it evokes a sense of sunshine and vitality. In others, where abundant fruit trees line the streets, that aspiration isn’t so strong. New messaging that chimes with local ambitions (‘the world’s number one juice brand’), with the iconic striped straw adapted to function as a mark of quality make more sense.

Ben & Jerry’s hits the mark here. The ice-cream brand has a globally consistent ID, and responds to individual markets without compromising that. So in the UK you get Cool Britannia. In Japan, Green Enertea. In the US, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough becomes I Dough, I Dough to celebrate the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

Second, reclaiming routes to consumers. For too long those connections have been eroded by third-party distribution, e-commerce platforms and retailer private labels.

Evidence shows retailers don’t stop stocking product if brands sell direct online. In 2016, e-commerce sales for grew by 59 per cent y-o-y, to €1bn. This didn’t result in a cannibalisation of existing sales – net sales increased by 18 per cent.

But route to consumer is not just about point of sale. The average person will spend 100 minutes a day watching online video by 2021, according to Zenith Media, so connecting with people via this platform is increasingly important.

We’ve worked with the RedHeads Wine team a few times now, creating video content to breathe life into the stories behind select products. The beauty of this type of work is that it helps reach new customers with brand content for social channels.

Last but not least, brand managers need to think hard about how they can factor in enhanced agility within supply chains, so they can flex and respond quickly.

This is stuff of nightmares for global brand managers – decades of systems built on economies of scale were proving a major stumbling block before the pandemic. But it is fast becoming a commercial imperative as consumer’s require more choice and transparency. As we futureproof supply from a commercial perspective so we have an opportunity to do so from a consumer value perspective.

Worldwide appeal

We shouldn’t blame coronavirus for knocking lumps out of global brands; it has provided us with an opportunity to rethink our offers and to come at positioning from a fresh angle. The coronavirus has highlighted just how important it is to rethink how we engage with consumers.

If we’re to bring consumers back on board and make them fall in love with global brands again, we need to change the perception of what it means to be global. That means shifting our focus from cookie-cutter execution to developing communication tools that reach deeper into consumer cultures, embrace local idiosyncrasies, and respond to market changes.

As we look forward to the recovery of a post-pandemic world, one thing is clear: recognising nuances and complexity within global audiences should not be seen as a challenge to brand integrity. It is simply the brand of the future.