New market, same brand

A fast-food sighting prompts us to examine how brands expand overseas

Travel broadens the mind. It’s an adage that’s been around as long as transport has existed, but it’s true. That’s why, whenever Winkreative takes a trip overseas – whether it’s to the Portuguese coast, the heart of Seoul or downtown Honolulu – we like to keep our eyes open. What’s being promoted on billboards? What trends are brands tapping into? How are people choosing to live and work?

One sighting in recent years came not from a local boutique but from one of the world’s most recognisable brands: in Tokyo, McDonald’s launched a series of limited-edition rice burgers, currently available only in Japan. What stood out wasn’t just the taste, but the context – a big, distinctly American brand adapting their product to a local audience. And it raises an interesting question.

When a brand expands overseas, what should it adapt and what should it keep the same?

Do you stick to your tried and tested codes, despite cultural differences? Do you abandon your brand in favour of regional trends? In our opinion, it’s a case of pulling back and thinking about the bigger picture.

Good strategy starts with diagnosis. First understanding the market, the culture and socio-economic factors that will impact your brand in a new region, and using that knowledge to inform your tactics, whether it’s an advertising campaign or pricing strategy. But that’s only part of the story.

The strongest brands are sure of who they are – their philosophy, their values, what they offer to the world – and stay true to it. It’s a confidence that steers them away from chasing transient trends. It stops them from diluting their brand and becoming just another business selling another commodity in a globalised market. And it gives them a springboard for experimentation and evolution; allowing them to charm loyal customers and attract new ones in new markets.

The limited-edition McDonald’s rice burger was new and exciting. It catered to local tastes. But it was a product that was part of a larger, coherent strategy. And it was still unequivocally, unashamedly McDonald’s.

In creating it, the fast-food behemoth has illustrated a valuable argument – that when expanding your brand into a new market, why get rid of what makes you, you?