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Mirror worlds

Understanding that different nationalities have different perceptions enables brand managers to select the best approach for a specific audience

Flags_US_EUIn the 2003 book by William Gibson, Pattern Recognition, the story's heroine Cayce Pollard, a marketing consultant with an allergy to poorly-executed brands, astutely describes Europe and the US as 'mirror worlds'. This descriptor may resonate with anyone tasked with building (and stretching) brands so that they work on both sides of the Atlantic.

Superficially, it's easy to argue that Europe and the US resemble one another closely, which is why European marketers can be handed campaigns developed in the US for local implementation (within 'strict guidelines') throughout Europe. Likewise, American marketers are asked to repurpose bespoke, locally-tailored German, Spanish or UK campaigns.

Superficially, people are people. But in branding practice, Europe and the US are different. The challenge lies in the nature of brand itself. Branding is the art of manipulating people's perceptions, cutting a delicate balance between the emotive and the rational, while striking a chord with people's core agendas and beliefs.

Physiological similarities between Europe and the US belie the fact that the people are quite different, whether because of geography, culture, religion or race. Plus, in the case of those that speak a seemingly common language, as is the case with the US and UK, the differences are further accentuated. People may say the same thing (eg 'pants') but in fact mean to express something quite different; the mirror is distorted.

A common view is that people in the US are accustomed to having healthcare facts put before them, which they assimilate in order to make up their own minds. In Europe, people are generally more used to being made promises about how a treatment, device or procedure will benefit them. In America, the facts must be 'for real'; in Europe, promises must never be broken. These are generalisations, but they are accurate.

Our own research has shown that in language terms, Americans tend to focus on facts in a conversation. They are good at picking key messages from a sentence and understanding the significance of those messages, automatically adding context.

When Europeans are given information, they often express their impression of what has been presented and in order to demonstrate active listening will repeat back their interpretation of what they have gained. As a result, Americans sometimes complain of 'woolly Europeans', while Europeans in turn struggle to deal with the directness of Americans.

What is key is that differences are recognised and celebrated and common traits are leveraged. Rather than compartmentalising, both facts and impressions should be used to build a more progressive brand.Brand building is also the art of winning a share of mind, whether through an emotive promise that engages the rational mind or through clear factual claims that motivate someone to take action because you empathise with his agenda, or align to his values. Whatever the strategy, winning a share of mind means gaining people's attention.

Of course, healthcare advertisers on both continents have traditionally believed that healthcare professionals always make rational decisions. This is why, until recently, it used lifestyle imagery and clichéd mission; visions about improving quality of life. Regardless of where the audience was located, a nice image of grandad spending quality time with his grandchildren in the fresh air did the job.

There was nothing complicated for anyone building a brand against this backdrop. The facts differed notably from medicine to medicine, each new product bringing some enhancement in treatment, each enhancement improving the quality of grandad's life.

Today, however, the differences in performance from product to product are often slight; they may be important differences, perhaps critical to the patient, but they are difficult to assert as evidentially better than the competition. As a consequence, campaigns, messages and brand building have evolved, with differences in approach between the US and Europe even more exaggerated, as pharmaceutical marketers draw on the culture of their audience increasingly and less on the features of the product.

The economic balance of the world is shifting as the tiger economies emerge (and some fade away again) and Americans and Europeans are having to come to terms with it, albeit at different speeds. Europe's glory faded long before America's, but with it all has come a change in the way communication happens, because people have changed.

Perhaps this reflects subtle changes in personal focus. For instance, in the current economic environment there may be less interest in seeking gratification through hardcore commerce in favour of understanding what people really want and need from life. What people want and need is usually reflected, seemingly subliminally, through advertising.

From a healthcare communications perspective, the changing world is a chance for global branding outfits to meet, conceptually, somewhere mid-Atlantic and discuss common ground or, specifically, the common ground between the audiences, with new reference points, heroes, leaders, environments and unifying contexts.

As Western populations age, social care and healthcare interlink and common emotive themes become apparent in Europe and the US. Rational arguments and determination to fit with an audience's agenda must incorporate budget impact balanced with product performance, the hard costs and the soft costs, as well as the best care pathway for the patient.

Instead of adapting 'core' work from America for Europe's markets and vice versa, one single 'mid-Atlantic' branding toolkit, aligned with a universal need for sustainable business and environmental models, should yield better results.

Of course, elements of a unified campaign should (and will) differ from nation to nation, but where the key communications are all drawn from a single global toolkit the power of the brand will emerge because marketers from different cultures seek to leverage the assets and beliefs their markets have in common.

Critical to building a brand in this way is to bring the relevant nationalities together to create a brand platform that works in American and European markets.

We use a series of workshop-based tools to identify the differences and similarities between nationalities and their outlooks when making user or purchasing decisions. We look at current behaviours and beliefs and ways to change those beliefs to change behaviours. From region to region different traits can be overlaid and those that are common to a clinical audience, nursing audience or payer audience can be identified.

Next, we develop primary, secondary and tertiary messages. Within the context of a toolkit we decide whether we do not change it at all, adapt with consent or leave it totally open to interpretation. In this way, we can take a pragmatic view of how to make the most of our differences rather than allow them to interfere or block a brand's momentum.

Brand builders are at an exciting evolutionary moment, with the opportunity to celebrate the things people have in common and making use of these to build ever more progressive and imaginative brands relevant to healthcare needs now and in the future.

The Author
Stephen Page is managing director, creative and brand at Euro RSCG Life Medicom, a member of the Havas Health network.

A US perspective

The differences between European and American cultures have narrowed over the past few decades. Much of our popular culture is shaped by a common set of personalities, trends and values. While our healthcare systems are clearly different, there are more similarities than exceptions.

Other regions have greater differences but there are subtleties separating the US and Europe that need to be heeded, as was shown in a campaign that relied heavily on the concept of power. The idea tested well in the US because the product was considered a 'big gun', but in Europe, it created a negative impression among doctors as the idea of power suggested American imperialism.

After discussing the reactions on both sides, we discovered that while power might be a polarising concept, the idea of strength was not; the core platform was a higher degree of efficacy, and this was what we preserved.

The idea that Europeans focus more on impressions while Americans focus on facts was borne out by another campaign that we tested using a range of ideas from people-focused concepts (ie typical pharma advertising) to abstract, symbolic advertising.

The symbolic ads failed in the US, but did extremely well in Europe. The European reactions to the people-based ads were: 'I've seen this before' and 'this looks like a cigarette ad'. The US reaction to the abstract ads was 'I don't get this' and 'this is too clever for me'. The solution was to find a common language that resonated with both audiences while using different visual approaches.

The way Diet Coke is marketed differently in the US and EU is insightful. The word 'diet' does not translate well in the EU and other markets as it implies that the person drinking it has a weight problem. So it is marketed outside the US as Coca-Cola Light. The can itself is a smaller, more elongated shape, reflecting the smaller volumes that suit Europeans.


Two different can designs for different regions: Diet Coke and Coca-Cola Light 

So, both the message and visual have been adapted to the needs of European audiences. Yet, when the can is viewed from afar, there is no doubt that the product is Diet Coke. The message acknowledges cultural differences, but its essence remains.

Yes, a single brand platform can work on both sides of the Atlantic, but the subtle differences in the way the message is resonating (or not) must be acknowledged. The US and EU markets do mirror each other, but they're reflected across a body of water and the resulting image is not an exact duplicate, but slightly distorted by waves, air, and culture.

Fine-tuning these subtle differences can create a core platform that is unified while truly reflecting the needs of each audience.

The Author
Sung Rno is executive creative director, copy, at Health4Brands (H4B) Chelsea in New York. H4B is a member of the Havas Health network.


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14th February 2011


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