It’s an issue most brands experience: when entering a new market, there’s a fair amount of study and work required in order to feel relevant to the local culture. Some global branding failures become legendary: “Pepsi Brings You Back To Life” translated into Mandarin as “Pepsi Brings You Back From The Grave”; HSBC’s $10m rebrand after a campaign which translated “Assume Nothing” into “Do Nothing” in many regions.
These are obvious – but language translation is probably the easiest error to avoid. More subtle failures arguably do more harm, often seeming not just unintentionally funny or odd to potential new consumers, but actively offensive.
For instance, Zara’s 2019 global campaign assumed that cutting-edge Western cultural interests would feel impactful and welcomed everywhere.
During the past few years, brands have garnished acclaim – and cultural strength – by using models with conventionally-unattractive traits: Fenty’s unretouched overweight, gap-toothed, pregnant and/or very dark-skinned models; H&M starring a Special Olympics winner with Downs syndrome, Chelsea Werner; Vogue and L’Oréal collaborating on an issue exclusively featuring women over 50.
This trope works because North American and Western European cultures have very strong likings for female self-expression, inclusivity, and for novelty. These values combine to make a virtue of widening the definition of beauty.
But by featuring a heavily freckled Chinese model, Zara prompted very vocal offence by Chinese consumers who interpreted the campaign as a slur on Chinese women’s beauty. Imperfection wasn’t interesting or aspirational for the Chinese mass-market: to them, it felt like a Western brand “defaming the Chinese” by cherry-picking an ‘ugly’ Chinese woman to represent the country.
It’s very common for western brands to fail to adapt their offerings to China, which leads to the market gaining a reputation as very difficult to crack – especially in the eyes of people who remember a time when “being western” was enough to spark interest. But any brand which doesn’t make itself culturally relevant to a new target market is likely to fail, wherever that target market is. Chinese consumers enjoy bold beauty – just not done like that.
Muji’s expansion to the US ended in disaster in July, filing for bankruptcy with a debt of $64 million.
The pandemic didn’t help – but the brand was in trouble before that, due to a mismatch in cultural priorities between the US and Asia. Muji had presented the US with solutions for needs they didn’t have, and undesirable core values – while targeting the wrong audience within a huge and diverse country.
Muji’s core values have strong cultural power in the US – but they don’t have the same meanings that they do in Japan. Instead of connecting with specifically American cultural constructions of sustainability, purity and simplicity, Muji presented Japanese versions of these values. By equating ‘simplicity’ with functionality and value, Muji set itself up in competition with unbranded products from Amazon Marketplace, and looked overpriced by comparison.
The focus on functionality and value was also a mismatch for American priorities, including love for conspicuous consumption. Solutions to make the most of space might be nice-to-have, but aren’t real priorities, for Americans whose homes are large. And while many Asian consumers invest in basic but durable items, few Americans are bothered by frequently replacing their possessions.
There’s certainly a slice of tiny-home-living, minimalism-loving Americans that appreciate Muji’s values. However, they’re unlikely to shop at big stores on Fifth Avenue or in Times Square, where Muji invested in flagships. More discerning placement, or even partnerships with similar local brands, might have seen better success
The experiences of Muji and Zara show how culturally-relevant concepts and positionings need to be reimagined when crossing markets, not just promoted. If your brand positioning is strong enough, it can likely be translated. Core concepts like ‘acceptance,’ ‘beauty’ or ‘simplicity’ have a meaning in most cultures. But that meaning may not be quite what you expect.
If you’d like to chat to us about how your core values can be translated into new markets, please get in touch.
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