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Staying local when you’re global: a cautionary tale from Jo Malone

By Ada Luo |



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September 22, 2020 | 7 min read

Localisation of marketing has been brought into focus this week after Jo Malone’s reputation – the brand, not the person who founded it – went up in sweetly aromatic flames. Beyond the outrage, there are lessons to be learnt by marketers on how to keep a unified voice over diverse territories, especially now that you’re only ever a tweet away from an existential crisis.

Jo Malone/ John BJohn Boyega drops Jo Malone following censorship from China spotoyega

Croud suggest ways for brands to be both locally and internationally aware, in light of Jo Malone's recent faux-pas.

Choosing a locally-known celebrity for your ad campaign isn’t exceptional. But when the celebrity you replace is an internationally recognised star, you’re going to have your motivation scrutinised. This is why searching for ’Jo Malone’ now produces results not about perfumes but about the whiff of racism, appropriation and mismanagement.

The decision to replace John Boyega with Liu Haoran in a campaign re-make that was both faithful to the original and showing blundering bad faith could have repercussions for Jo Malone beyond the resignation of a brand ambassador and a social media storm. It should at least make them have a serious rethink about the structure of their global marketing effort.

Was a lack of face-to-face oversight to blame?

Large agencies have offices in their territories of operation because they can staff them with local talent and expertise who are more attuned to the needs of the target consumers than a distant HQ ever could be. But with that branching out, there has to be a balance between full regional autonomy and a tight centralised grip on all creative output. Finding that balance is not easy, but it’s vital.

The case has highlighted the importance of having meaningful daily interactions between distant offices and the central base. It’s interesting that this all emerged during a time when businesses have been forced to seek new ways of keeping in touch with their offices.

In the dimly-remembered pre-coronavirus past, managers would have jetted around the world to keep a handle on what’s going on in their territorial offices, but this has become impossible. Video conferencing has taken up some of the slack, but some company owners have inevitably struggled with maintaining the tight operations they once oversaw.

No amount of ongoing education and brand bibles can ensure incidents like this will never happen unless every single piece of creative goes through HQ for approval. That could cause bottlenecks for agencies and brands that trickle mini-campaigns out daily, and even weaken the rationale for having regional outposts. And let’s not forget that China is just one territory – there are more than 200 countries in the world, and the large ones among them are divided into regions with distinct characteristics. That could add up to a lot of approval over at the head office.

Finding the perfect blend

This is the world that globally-minded marketers must inhabit in the social media age. If a brand is to mean anything, it will always form the basis of a unified image and ethos. But just as McDonald’s menus are the-same-but-different all over the world, brands need to be both locally and internationally aware, not just in marketing campaigns but in their daily actions.

How each marketing operation goes about achieving this is the challenge, but it will be down to each one to find that perfect blend of hands-on and hands-off management that suits the way they work. But ensuring local talent is allowed to be both creative and on-brand is a good start – along with a modicum of sensible oversight.

Importantly, localisation should never be just about tweaking campaigns to make them relatable to different audiences. The Jo Malone campaign was quite an extreme example, but unfortunately, it’s the kind of thing we see all too often when a campaign is being localised. Like many marketers have suggested, the incident could have been avoided if their local team had consulted with Boyega on the local adaption or, instead, shot a new video telling Liu’s own story in relation to the product.

A more creative outlook will always work better, and as long as it’s informed by the company’s ethos and DNA, branding will be maintained alongside diversity that will lend authenticity to local campaigns. Of course, cost will play a part. A finished 30-second ad is the result of days’ or weeks’ research, immersion, ideation, collaboration and execution, and it might not be worth doing if you’re targeting 10,000 people. But all marketing has a value that is measured in ROI, whether that’s direct sales, brand awareness or ongoing PR. Giving diverse marketing teams more flexibility within set cost restraints would keep marketing fresh and authentic.

Thinking global

The hardest part is to put yourself in the shoes of someone on the other side of the world when you’re dreaming up and creating a campaign. We can assume that nobody at Jo Malone China set out to deliberately offend a couple of billion people. But the ignorance of how their actions would play out was as damaging as if it was, in fact, intentional. It displays an insularity that should never be a factor in marketing, even when targeting a very specific audience.

Professional marketers need to know it’s in their own interest to stay abreast of the conversations that are going on around the world, and what kinds of issues are creating controversy. It wouldn’t hurt to run concepts and finished campaigns by a few other people in the team and in the wider global business to get a feel for whether the idea raises any concerns.

Even if it means abandoning a campaign that has had many hours’ work spent on it, you might have to swallow your sunk cost and move on – because the alternative could really cause a stink.

Ada Luo, regional account director APAC at Croud.

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