Marketing Social Media Globalization

How a rise in populism is shifting the tides of global brand marketing


By Kendra Clark | Senior Reporter

October 22, 2021 | 16 min read

As part of The Drum’s Globalization Deep Dive, we ask whether, in an increasingly divided world, it’s possible for a brand to maintain pride in its country of origin while expanding global appeal.

Various country flags pinned on globe

A rise in populism is shifting the tides of global brand marketing

The world has in recent years witnessed an apparent spike in nationalist politics, paired with declining international trade and faltering trust in foreign companies. At the same time, an ever more globalized world brings questions of environmentalism and inequality into the picture. The landscape in which we find ourselves – seemingly more complex by the day – erects new, higher hurdles for the world’s brands.

Few Americans can forget images of insurrectionists descending on the US Capitol on January 6, scaling the building’s facade, smashing windows and wreaking havoc in the Senate Chamber. And January 6, while perhaps the most atrocious and most palpable in recent memory – at least for those in the US – is just one paragon of a much broader trend: an influx of nationalism around the world. Certainly not all of the Capitol rioters were white nationalists – many were QAnon conspiracy devotees and many others white supremacists with no vested interest in nationalism. But many of their ranks were inspired, at least in part, by Trump’s specific brand of anti-‘other’ rhetoric that has in recent years found itself duplicated in different manifestations across the globe.

Nationalism is not a US-only problem; it has bloomed around the globe in recent years – Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Italy’s Matteo Salvini are key manifestations of this movement, as are Brexit, the increase in anti-immigration attitudes globally, pressure to end offshoring and bring jobs ‘back home’ in many countries, and rising anti-China sentiment in the US.

So what accounts for this shift? And how can global brands – especially those whose brand identities are inextricably linked to their country of origin – navigate these ongoing and emergent challenges with tact while continuing to grow their global customer base? Is it possible to maintain pride in one’s country of origin while expanding global appeal in an increasingly divided world?

Is there actually an influx underway?

Leading thinkers agree that populism may play a central role in the apparent growth we’ve witnessed in nationalism globally. Dr Beáta Huszka, an expert in nationalism and a visiting fellow at the European Council of Foreign Affairs focused on policy issues in Southeast Europe, says that recent research brings into question whether nationalism is truly in a growth period. “If we take a longer perspective, it is not that obvious that ethnic nationalism in Europe, for example, is more prevalent than was in the early 1990s, marked by the Yugoslav conflicts and the virulent, xenophobic nationalism of some governments in Eastern Europe, such as in Slovakia or Romania,” she says.

“However, there has been a noticeable trend of the rise of nationalist parties since the 1980s in Western Europe, while far-right parties have recorded significant gains in their popularity during the last few years or so, also reflected in their electoral results – even if these results vary from country to country. It is difficult to highlight a universal trend as the popularity of some far-right parties has decreased, such as the UK Independence Party or that of the Party for Freedom (aka PVV) of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, which stand in contrast with the rising electoral gains of the Front National in France, the Alternative for Germany or the Northern League in Italy.”

So while nationalism grows in popularity in some regions, it declines in others. Still, she says, it’s important that our perception is that nationalism is rising. She suggests that this perception is due in some part to various political parties across the west campaigning on populist platforms have been successful in recent years. “In all of these cases, ethnic nationalism has been combined with authoritarian tendencies and populism, which has increased ‘aggregate effects of nationalism’ as Erin K Jenne argued.”

These perceptions have perhaps only been magnified by the ubiquity of social media, points out Dr Sabina Mihelj, professor of media and cultural analysis at the School of Social Sciences at Loughborough University in England.

And though Huszka expresses some doubts about the scale of the problem, both she and Mihelj are in agreement that economic factors have contributed to a spike in populism, if not nationalism, too. “There seems to be a general consensus that economic marginalization is at the heart of the increasing attractiveness of ethnic populism – which holds even historically, reflected in the rise of the far right in the 1930s in an effect of the great recession. This has been the argument of [French economist] Thomas Piketty, namely, that economic inequalities in the west have been on the rise for decades and these have produced resentment among those left behind – [such as] blue collar workers and those without university degrees. In the meantime, leftist and social democratic parties have embraced free market ideologies and have stopped catering to constituencies affected by economic marginalization.

“As a result, western mainstream parties have failed to address the socioeconomic grievances of these vulnerable strata that could not keep up with the advances of globalization and technological change. I think this is how economic processes driving the rise of inequality contributed to the growing resentment against globalization.”

In Piketty’s argument, Huszka points out, because mainstream liberal political parties largely failed to enact economic programs that created a more just society, constituents were drawn to ethnic nationalists who were eager to “deride the forces of globalization and...point the finger to the old, corrupt elites, foreigners, immigrants [or] whomever in the blame game”. And the 2008 financial crisis may be behind at the root of much of this sense of disenfranchisement.

How does nationalism gel with globalization?

Dr Glen Duerr, associate professor of international studies at Cedarville University in Ohio, has studied the phenomena of nationalism and secession. Duerr sees renewed nationalism as, in some ways, a product of globalization itself. The acceleration of globalization in the 80s and 90s following the introduction of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Maastricht Treaty in the European Union and similar agreements around the world, Duerr argues, created clear benefits, but also a handful of hard-to-ignore drawbacks.

“Life expectancy has risen in tandem with higher per capita wealth. However, these gains have been uneven to the point where numerous cities in the Midwest of the US and the north of England, as two examples, have effectively been hollowed out through significant job losses and instability within the local economies,” he says.

“Nationalism has been revived as a counter to unabashed globalization. Globalization continues and is often supported by most political leaders, but there has been a nationalistic and populist check on advancing globalization further.”

However, in parallel with the recent influx of nationalist politics has been a decline in global trade. While the spread of globalization appears to continue at a steady pace, data from Euromonitor reveals that, in actuality, international trade as a percentage of GDP has been on the decline since 2010 in countries around the world. In 2010, international trade accounted for about 44% of total GDP in developed nations and about 49% in developing nations; by 2022, those numbers will have dropped to approximately 41% and 37.5%, respectively. Huszka says that factors including the 2008 financial crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, an increasingly diversified energy landscape and declining consumer demands may have contributed to this trend.

While there is little formal research currently available to confirm or deny a causal relationship between the perceived spread of nationalist sentiment and declining international trade, there are cases in which the connection seems obvious.

“China is a clear example where consumer nationalism has been growing, encouraged by the communist party, and where campaigns against some foreign [companies like] Adidas, Nike and H&M have been quite successful, also reflected by falling revenues,” says Huszka.

“There seems to be a direct link between the rise of nationalist parties to power and economic nationalism as nationalists often preach and conduct nationalist, protectionist economic policies. However, there is also a more mundane, banal form of consumer nationalism [in ​​Michael Billig’s sense of the term] reflected in the preference of products produced locally or carrying local cultural content.”

This latter phenomenon is evidenced in the US, for instance, in demands to reduce offshoring and revitalize domestic manufacturing.

In tandem with declining international trade is faltering trust in companies based in markets around the world. Data from the Edelman Trust Barometer 2021 – a study that surveyed some 33,000 consumers in 28 countries – indicates that overall trust in global companies has seen a steady three-year decline. Japanese and British companies have suffered the greatest decline in consumer trust over this period, each taking hits of 9%. It’s clear that such shifts could be linked to political happenings (Japan’s Shinzo Abe, who stepped down as prime minister just last year, has been known to espouse far-right nationalist ideas, while the UK finalized its nationalist exit from the EU early last year).

Edelman’s data suggests that, as of today, companies headquartered in Germany are the most well-trusted, followed by those in Canada and Switzerland. Chinese companies clock in with the lowest score, winning over the trust of just 34% of consumers, down from 36% last year and 39% in 2019. Mexico, Brazil and India also sit at the low trust extreme of the spectrum.

While politics almost certainly play a role in consumer sentiment toward various companies and countries as a whole, there are other factors at play. Edelman’s chief executive Richard Edelman – whose father Daniel Edelman founded and helped develop the public relations and marketing firm – thinks there are three other factors that have put Germany and Canada at the top and China and Mexico at the bottom of the barometer: their relative environmentalism, labor policies and class divides.

“It’s almost like three sets of countries: the sort of good guys – Australia, Switzerland, Canada and Germany, [which are] probably eco, pro-worker [and have] less mass class divides,” he says. “The Americans, the Brits and the French are kind of defining the broad middle. And Mexico, Brazil, China and India...are seen as really bad in the environment and not so hot with the workers.”

Sustainability, labor practices and wealth and class inequality remain three of the most pressing issues for which national-level policies have the power to either significantly advance or existentially threaten.

Today, every company – but especially those with a global presence – must navigate an increasingly complex world: one riddled with political, social and economic tensions, grappling with both nationalism and globalization and suffering declines in both international trade and consumer trust. Marketers whose mission it is to connect with audiences both ‘at home’ and abroad in relevant, authentic ways, may be faced with some of the biggest challenges of all.

How marketers can win in an increasingly complex landscape

Some brands, like British Airways, Ikea, Zara and many others, have built brand identities that seem inextricably married to their national origins – but have found widespread success in international markets.

Their success, while attributable to a variety of factors, may be due in part to their ability to balance their appeal to consumers’ dual nationalist and cosmopolitan inclinations, says Mihelj. “[These brands] are reliant on national symbols and rhetoric, but they often do so in a way that caters for a global, cosmopolitan audience that enjoys displaying its openness to cultural diversity through consuming branded goods that are associated with other nations,” she says.

“Which kind of people such brands will appeal to depends in part on the history and established perceptions – or stereotypes – of a particular nation, and in part on the present politics of this nation. For instance, many Scandinavian brands – not just Ikea, but also cultural products such as novels and TV series – draw on the appeal of the elusive ‘Scandi’ or Nordic culture, which is often associated with upper middle-class tastes, stylishness and a good quality of life, a strong welfare state, etc. These features tend to appeal to a specific political and ideological profile.”

Still, Mihelj says that marketing focused on national origins can invite unwanted risks, too, since politics – whether intentionally or unintentionally – may undergird messaging meant to appeal to broad swaths of people, which at the extreme can lead to consumer boycotts. And this is where nationalist or nationalist-adjacent sentiments can cause real damage to a brand – when Spaniards boycott Catalonian goods or Arabs boycott Israeli products.

Then there are hyper-regional brands. Duerr points to Cheerwine and Irn-Bru, two soft drinks with uniquely strong customer bases in, respectively, the American South and in Scotland. As one might imagine, these brands face hurdles of their own. “[Cheerwine and Irn-Bru] fans drink these beverages because they taste good and connect them to a place – but none of these brands are likely to reach the status of Coca-Cola without connecting to something larger and more global,” Duerr says. “At the same time, Coca-Cola will find it difficult to outmaneuver the aforementioned brands in localized areas without a regional niche.”

In order to strike the right balance, brands need to speak authentically and uniquely to groups in different markets and demographics, according to marketing experts. “Brands may have a global image, but the brand image needs to be made real for people in each market,” says Ric Elert, president and chief operating officer at performance marketing firm Epsilon.

“That means marketers must really tune in to the pulse of the local market and deliver messaging to each individual. When it comes to brand messages, one size does not fit all. People must see themselves interacting with a brand or using a brand. If a product or service is not familiar to a person in their local country, it doesn't connect.”

Easier said than done, of course. To craft and deploy truly market-specific messages, brands and the agencies behind them need to have a sophisticated understanding of a given market’s cultural touchpoints, demographic differences, specific channels by which to reach target audiences effectively as well as regional and national consumer data privacy laws (which increasingly inhibit targeted advertising).

According to Edelman, the brands that have mastered the balance pair personalized, market-specific messages with purpose – rooted in causes with broad appeal. “Volkswagen, Starbucks, Unilever, PayPal – they've raised wages, they’ve led on sustainability. They have been very conscious of when they’ve had a problem.”

These brand winners, Edelman says, are combining values-based moves with a focus on regional markets. “Starbucks is really trying to make itself Chinese. That’s their MO. They’re sourcing in China for tea, for instance, and trying to get some coffee from China.”

Rather than investing in hyper-localized strategies, other brands are maintaining pride in their national origins, but building global appeal by translating the universal truths that appeal to consumers everywhere. Jack Daniels – the iconic Tennessee whiskey that, for many drinkers around the world, immediately draws to mind the US, and the South in particular – is one such brand. “It is about understanding why our people feel pride [in our story] and sharing that with global audiences,” says the company’s global brand director Matt Blevins.

“There are still a few things that unite people across geography, politics [and] economics. The balancing act is to really understand what transcends borders and can resonate and what can be left behind. Those universal truths of taking pride in your craft and place of origin often translate because everyone understands that feeling. The promise of high quality is another element that the production, process and place often communicate. On the other hand, stories that require understanding of the home culture or specific details can be difficult to translate and often get in the way of the larger brand story.”

But just because many global brands have developed a successful formula doesn’t mean we’re out of the weeds. According to Mihelj, nationalist leanings aren’t going anywhere any time soon. “Nation branding, and the related phenomena of consumer nationalism and ethnic consumption, are far from outdated, and I’d expect them to thrive in the future and perhaps even become more important than they are now,” she says.

Social media, in particular, she believes, may be perpetuating the tie between nationalism, consumption and marketing. But the role of social media expands far beyond its ability and proclivity, perhaps, to fan the flames of populist and nationalist sentiments. It catalyzes many of globalization’s biggest effects, serving as a tool of commerce and a vehicle for importing and exporting culture and ideas.

Brands, which hold a stake in the global shifts of all of these phenomena, are increasingly caught in the crosshairs. And considering the still-explosive growth of social media seen worldwide, they may have yet to face their biggest battles.

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