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Brands Across the Water

Are we 'global,' or just all over the place?

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Many brands and retailers will say that they are global. Saying it is the easy part. But when you begin to dissect what that actually means, things get a lot hazier.

It's easy to say you have offices and stores all around the world, but so do your competitors. You may have a multi-national staff, but so does my dry cleaner. Get it right and the rewards are great. Relentlessly changing shape and shifting emphasis, truly global brands and businesses are very hard to imitate. Sort of like Pez.

“Think Global, Act Local” used to be everyone's solution to this riddle, but it doesn't really explain the complexity of the situation. In a world where your potential customer is now everyone, can you afford the baggage of a local focus? But if not, how do you touch these people in ways that are meaningful to them? Think Global, Act Local was so popular primarily because it rhymed.

ONE SIZE FITS ALL?

In recent years, ubiquity emerged as the predominant model for global expansion because of cost efficiencies that could then be passed on to the consumer. To put it another way, it's cheap. Brands justify this shameless penny-pinching by saying they're really trying to establish and maintain “consistency.” But is that what we really want? If a store in Covent Garden is exactly the same as its twin on South Beach, aren't we missing something?

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Ubiquity — even good ubiquity — looks, well, ubiquitous, and panders to the lowest common denominator of consumer connection. Yes, it is possible to generate the same buzz in Peking that your brand has in Boise. But aspire to be the same thing to both cultures while recognizing neither, and chances are you're not turning heads anywhere.

And yet, what happens when brands travel across oceans and cultures successfully? All the things that made us explore this ball of water and land in the first place. Cultures are enriched, bridges are built and life gets a lot more fun.

Great global concepts recognize that our perspectives change based on our surroundings and remain flexible enough to shift emphasis to reflect this. Such changes can be subtle, but they recognize that a concept perfectly pitched to the suburban power strip, for example, won't have much of a future across the pond. (Not least because we British have a problem pronouncing such complex American retail terms as “mall,” and won't embrace things we can't pronounce.)

THE INEVITABLE NIKE BENCHMARK

Who's at least trying to do a good job? Nike. When this Goddess of Shoe Retailing Victory opened NikeTown London, just as it announced it would build no more stores in the U.S., it sent out signals about market maturation. Toss in the launch of its online store, along with plans to scale down its bricks-and-mortar sites, and our international intelligence phones were ringing off the hook.

Exhibit A? NikeTown in the Smoke (a nickname London earned because of pollution, and kept because it seems the whole city is constantly lighting up). In pictures, the store looks like more of the same, but visit the place and the difference is dramatic. Pulsing to a loop of block-rocking beats, its atrium (ubiquity, Nike-style) carries the sounds of cheering crowds, reflecting team sports'dominance in the U.K. and avoiding posturing, marquee athletes. The result feels more timeless.

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Added to this is a level of consumer interest in the displays not seen since the original “museum stores” in Portland, Ore., and Chicago. In the U.S., this feature all but throttled some of the last sites — see Boston, where the marathon “marathon” experience lost the retail plot. But in London, crowds were prodding at hokey displays touting the benefits of air bladders, like they'd never watched Michael soar through the closing seconds of another Bulls rout. Which, of course, they hadn't.

Yes, all those buzz words of design and merchandising can be dusted off when you're breaking into new territories. Infotainment, product power stories, transitions, focals, interactivity are very much in evidence over there. Next, they'll have climbing walls.

YOU CLEAN UP PRETTY GOOD

Who else? Urban Outfitters'artful decay unveiled a far more genteel side in London and yet was still labeled “industrial grunge.” (Note: England is officially the last remaining country where the word “grunge” remains in common parlance.)

The store design equivalent of “I say to-may'-ato, you say to-mah'-to,” this represents a key point. Just because a concept is familiar to us doesn't mean it won't surprise as much “over there” as when it debuted here. You just can't expect to surprise. The intimate details of your brand are available online to consumers from London to Lapland, and it's not enough anymore to travel abroad in pioneering spirit and say, “Greetings, buy our stuff, we're American!” (Unless, that is, you're planning the second coming of grunge, in which case, have I got a market for you!)

Urban Outfitters'success in Europe remains to be seen, but at least their stores are more like cousins than clones, sharing fundamentals but also bending the rules where appropriate. Even though the London store may be more polished than those in the U.S., it remains a very stripped-down, no-frills presentation. Unfortunately, some elements work better than others. Leaving elements of the raw interior “exposed” in a city founded on centuries of build-it-up-and-tear-it-down, left the locals wondering if the plasterers never returned from their tea break.

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And so to Ralph Lauren's new Mansion on Bond Street. While part of this brand's cache has always been its American-ness, it is careful to avoid the pitfalls associated with that. In the London flagship, a clean-cut homage to preppy-dom rubs shoulders with a Colonial gentlemen's club replete with tiger-skin rugs, pith helmets and plenty-o-brass. Very classy, very English and potentially another dynamic exercise in brand elasticity — but would they try this safari on Michigan Avenue? Two words: Banana and Republic.

SO, HOW TO?

For Timberland, Fitch is engaged in a program of long-term global scenarios, developing new ways of working across markets. The scope ranges from store and fixture designs that meet all the needs of international markets, to international graphic standards that have to translate across multiple languages.

Ultimately, to play globally, you need to understand the globe. This involves time and it involves resources, and if you think your domestic consumer is constantly changing, imagine this multiplied thousands of times and passed through every cultural filter there is. But don't be put off. If they'll buy line dancing in Tokyo, anything is possible.

And finally? If ever I needed a reminder of cultural divisions, it came on a visit to a Gap store in England. Upon entering, I was greeted with the familiar “Welcome to The Gap, how are you?” Having spent a few years stateside, I fired back “Good! How are you?” The greeter looked so shocked I had to ask what was wrong. “Er, nothing, it's just I've been working here three months and no one has ever asked me that.”

The lesson from all of this might just be a dressed-up version of the old adage, “If we were all the same, the world would be a boring place” — to shop.

Christian Davies is vp and head of Retail Environments in the Boston office of Fitch (Columbus, Ohio). A native of the U.K., he still struggles with the word “mall” and tirelessly predicts that “grunge will be back.” Fitch's international clients include Timberland, Burger King and Universal Studios.

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