Big ideas often come out of small conversations. This seems to be the case with marketing guru Nirmalya Kumar’s latest book Brand Breakout: How Emerging Market Brands Will Go Global, which he has co-authored with Jan-Benedict EM Steenkamp.
“This book started one evening in my apartment [in London] when I was sitting with my friend JB [Jan-Benedict]. The latest Interbrand [a brand consultancy] 100 global brands list had come out. Not a single brand from the emerging markets was on it,” says Kumar, a professor of marketing and co-director at the Aditya Birla India Centre at London Business School.
“JB and I started talking about why things are the way they are. First we came up with reasons why there were no emerging market brands on the Interbrand list. Then we started to figure out how, if emerging market brands had to go global, they would need to go about it.”
Kumar and Steenkamp found one part of the answer in the list of the top 500 companies in the world. China has 73 companies on it—the second largest after the US. And here’s the nub: Most of these are business-to-business [B2B] companies, or those in the business of extracting natural resources, or those like China Mobile that are monopolies in their local markets.
B2B CAN DO WITHOUT BRANDING
“In B2B marketing, brands play a very small role,” says Kumar. “You go to the man on the street and ask him to name any of the top B2B brands. Chances are he won’t be able to name any. You ask people about ABB, nobody knows about ABB. Before it became Sony-Ericsson, nobody knew of Ericsson either.”
Nevertheless, there are some B2B companies that have been able to build big brands. But they are exceptions. “General Electric gets a branding because of being in washing machines and other electronic goods. Shell gets a name because of gas stations. IBM has a brand name that is consumer-oriented because they were in PCs and they have been around for 100 years or more. Otherwise IBM would not be a known brand,” says Kumar. “There are companies like Tetra Pak in packaging or Intel with its ‘Intel Inside’ campaign, which have been able to build brands.”
Companies from emerging markets don’t need to build global brands because most of them are not in consumer-facing businesses. Take Indian IT companies, for instance. They have concentrated on IT services, and not built products where they would have needed to create brands. “I suspect that the logic of a product company is very different from the logic of a service company,” says Kumar.
This is precisely why contract manufacturers in emerging markets haven’t developed brands. “Their existing business model is very successful. To evolve into a new business model with uncertain chances of success and doubtful profitability is unlikely,” he says.
Kumar cites the example of contract manufacturers in Bangladesh. “No country owns contract manufacturing like Bangladesh. When I was in Bangladesh, they told me, we have to have our own brands; we are tired of manufacturing for others. But their existing business model is so profitable, the question is do they need to develop brands?”
Also, to build a global brand in the business-to-consumer (B2C) space, companies need to create awareness among Western consumers through advertising and marketing—that may be an expensive proposition for emerging market countries. “The United States, Europe and Japan are probably the three most expensive places in the world to advertise. Given that, no emerging market can rationally make a case for advertising investment,” says Kumar.
Besides this, the country-of-origin effect [a psychological effect on customers when they are unfamiliar with a product] is also at play. “All Western consumers, when asked what they think of a brand that comes from India or China or any other emerging market, say it will be of poor quality,” says Kumar.
The irony, of course, is that consumers from emerging markets think the same about brands from their own countries. “Even Indian and Chinese consumers would say that brands coming from emerging markets, including their own, are of poorer quality than Western and Japanese ones.”
BUT BRANDS CAN BE BUILT
The dearth of global brands from emerging markets can be corrected in the time to come. There are a number of strategies that companies in these countries can follow in order to build brands in the West.
One is to use the diaspora route. “This strategy involves companies targeting immigrants from their own country and building enough scale and sales to support a brand push. You see a lot of brands doing that, including Pran [Foods] from Bangladesh, Dabur, ICICI Bank and, to some extent, SBI, Nando’s from South Africa, and Corona from Mexico,” says Kumar.
The second is the cultural resources route. Even though brands from emerging markets are considered to be of inferior quality by Western consumers, there are certain things that are regarded positively. “Even though Brazil has a poor image for any brand that comes out of it, nobody questions Brazil for fun, beach, sun and sand. That’s why they have a brand called Havaianas that sells flip-flops,” says Kumar.
Similarly, China is known for its ancient medicine and silk. India is known for ayurveda, a culture of history, yoga and religion. If a brand from an emerging market country positions itself around these things, it has a good chance of being accepted.
(This story appears in the 23 August, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)