What it takes to build a great global brand: the right mindset

Only a few years ago, small brands were all the rage. So how do you build a global brand without feeling like a faceless corporation? In this article, Wolff Olins strategist and writer David Stevens looks at the power of defining a common mindset.

If you rewind just a few years, it’s easy to believe that small brands were the ones with a big future. In March 2019, Forbes magazine ran an article entitled ‘Small is the new Big’, Nielsen published ‘Why Small Brands are Stealing the Spotlight’ and articles like ‘The Rise of Small Brands….and What Big Brands Should Do About It’ were big on Medium.

The prevailing idea was that - with barriers to entry into multiple categories lowering - smaller, niche brands could win because they are closer to consumers and their needs, truly unique in what they offer, and far more authentic than the corporate behemoths. Small brands also often have founders with big personalities, whom they place front and centre to help them stand out and connect with people on a personal level. Plus, smaller means more agile, so smaller brands can constantly change and optimise more painlessly than the big guns over time.

This worldview encourages small thinking when it comes to marketing and branding. For example, advertising and media focus turns to ‘microtargeting’, overemphasising founder stories and artisanal craft, and advocacy driven primarily via ‘micro-influencers’.

When The Economist are running stories like ‘Globalisation is dead and we need to invent a new world order’, you’d be forgiven for thinking that big is dead.

Big bounces back

Attitudes to global brands have unquestionably shifted since the start of the pandemic. Pharmaceuticals giants, once perceived amongst the world’s least trusted, have seen a big uptick in trust and reputation following their responses to the pandemic. Big family entertainment brands like Netflix, Disney and Spotify have captured millions of new subscribers. And shoppers have flocked to the likes of Amazon, Walmart and Target who, according to Kantar, have this year built on their brand equity with scores improving for being “meaningful” (meeting consumer needs in a relevant way), “salient” (quickly coming to mind) and - especially in the the case of Amazon - being significantly “different” and unique in their offer.

Global citizens clearly still value global brands. But it’s still worth asking ourselves how we should build them, so that they too feel authentic and create a positive impact on our economies and our cultures. 

The cornerstone of a great global brand: a common mindset

We’ve written a lot about conscious brands and what we believe a purposeful, modern brand looks like. And we’ve even benchmarked a wide range of global brands as part of our inaugural Conscious 100 Index.

But how do you begin to build a conscious brand on a global scale? And how do you embrace what people believe makes small brands special (authenticity, uniqueness, agility) without falling foul of seeming niche, local or specialist?

We believe that - whether you’re designing a new purpose, proposition, identity or personality - it starts with defining a common mindset.

Speak to a mindset, not a niche

Powerful global brands are not defined by one ‘tribe’ or consumer subset. They transcend demographic boundaries like gender, race and nationality.

Instead of microtargeting niches or endlessly looking for ways to pigeonhole people into ever-smaller boxes, the best global brands speak to a common mindset that millions of people can relate to. 

For example, Uber speaks to a mindset that’s all about striving. Today’s modern ‘strivers’ are the billions of people worldwide who want to explore, grow and seize opportunities. They don’t want outdated transportation systems (or any other systems for that matter) to hold back their potential. And Uber is a brand that shares their drive. Uber tries to help those people get to where they want to go in a transparent, fair, democratic way - without friction, bias or limitation.

Yes, this is a mindset that’s a little idealist, a little utopian maybe. But once you’ve identified an incredibly simple-yet-inspiring way to see the people you serve, you can design a brand around them that feels fresh, relevant and motivating. Without this kind of powerful understanding of a consumer’s mindset, brands often lack empathy and end up talking down to their users. They show off about what they have to offer, rather than considering what people want to hear.

Mindsets transcend founders or nation stories

Many brands start out with two things they often look to in order to define their brand: a founder and a nationality.

But as brands grow and aim to export their influence, stories about a charismatic figurehead often fall flat, because a CEO who impresses investors isn’t always the right personality to connect with consumers. Aligning a brand too closely with a Founder/CEO can also be very high-risk from a commercial standpoint as companies like WeWork and Facebook can attest.

Similarly, brands that are strong in a particular nation often try to spin their origin stories into a wider narrative. This works for smaller, local brands who want to tell locally-sourced ingredients stories or hyper-local network brands who want to quickly join up people on the ground. But whilst being known as your country’s ‘number one’ or ‘favourite’ might be tempting, it can be limiting - as it’s a position summons sometimes clichéd and unhelpful preconceptions about a particular country or customer base, plus it gives a global audience the impression of a small operation.  

It’s why Apple can consistently add touches like ‘Designed in California’ in small print to its product packaging, but would never encourage people to ‘Live like a Californian’. And it’s why the BBC does well to refrain from constantly highlighting the ‘British’ element in its name, instead taking pride in putting a highly diverse creative output on the world stage. It’s also partly why newer global brands like Brewdog, Oatly, Beyond Meat and Glossier (all of whom scored highly in our Conscious Brands Index) have managed to transcend potentially limited niche audiences and become part of the mainstream consciousness i.e. they speak to a mindset that’s bigger, more inclusive and more emotive than what milk you like, or what flavour of beer you favour.

To make a global impact, you need a global mindset

Today, if you want to have a true impact at scale, and be driven by a purpose that touches more than a small clique, you need to think big. Pinning down a big, shared mindset that you can then address through every marketing lever (whether that’s design, comms, events or products) creates consistency without creating repetition. 

It also influences the whole tone and personality of a brand, creating an attitude rooted in how people perceive the world and what they value. Being mindset-first is progressive too - as it’s about where people are going, rather than how old they are or where they come from.