Brands & National Identity – Part 1

Going back to ancient times, as the spread of empires such as that of the Romans put people into frequent contact with members of other cultures, the notion of connecting one’s commercial offerings to the reputation of one’s parent country has been a common practice. Enterprising Roman merchants were known to have touted fashions, statues, and furnishings to potential customers in other lands as “what the Romans find fashionable”. When in the Roman empire, do as the chic Romans do.

In more recent times, there are numerous examples of where a brand leveraged the perceptions of its county of origin in order to effectively position itself. But this is a complex and sometimes double-edged endeavour.

Take as an example the way Volkswagen deftly used its German origin to its advantage during the 50s and 60s. Americans, who represented the largest auto market in the world by far, were fresh from the experience of World War II and the battle against the Nazis. Into the wake of this experience, came VW. They knew that declaring German superiority was a non-starter—total marketing suicide. But  while the Beetle knew its ancestry as the “people’s car” introduced by Hitler himself, they also knew it had certain humble qualities that just might appeal to some Americans.

So they did the unprecedented, and launched full-page and double-page print ads in major publications with headlines like “Lemon” and “Think small” in simple type over a black and white image of a Beetle. The former execution was exceptionally clever—identifying the perfectly normal-looking Beetle in the photo as a “lemon” according to the stringent quality control engineers at VW. In other words, what may look perfectly fine to you and me is routinely rejected as flawed by strict German quality control standards. In this way, German perfectionism and excellence was presented in humble service to the American buyer, in the form of the most charming and unpretentious car the world has ever known. In other words, they took the right elements of the German DNA and served it up in a way that the target audience (frugal, pragmatic American families and younger drivers such as college students) could appreciate. While the brand was couched in genuine humility, they were true to the inherent and unshakeable excellence of German engineers. And the car sold like proverbial hotcakes.

Even more recently, during the 2000s, the Brazilian brewery Brahma, one of the world’s largest, made a big push to enter the North American market and compete directly with giant brands such as Corona. The marketing effort, however, was garbled and unclear. The name, first of all, does not readily indicate its Brazilian origin to American and Canadian ears. And while there are many attributes that make Brazilians (and Brazil as a concept) appealing and downright sexy to Westerners, the brand failed to connect the dots. Corona continues to be a major force in the beer category, having effectively leveraged certain aspects of what brand Mexico means to Norteamericanos—such as “carefree”, “relaxed”, and “on permanent vacation”. Meanwhile, when’s the last time you saw someone order a Brahma? A lost opportunity to connect to a strong national brand, for sure.