Last week I participated -- as a panel speaker and attendee - in the Global Russia Meeting hosted by the government of Luxembourg. Organized by Horasis, an independent think tank based in Zurich, and dubbed as a “world economic forum for emerging markets” , the event brought together many prominent business and political leaders from Russia, Europe and the United States.
Addressed through different panels, discussions about Russia focused on such topics as entrepreneurship, business growth overseas, innovating the Silicon-valley way, and of course, branding. Selected as one of the panelists for the discussion entitled Building Russian Brands, I shared my views on what would make Russian companies successful internationally.
RUSSIAN BRANDS GLOBALLY
According to one of the panel speakers, Tony Cowling from TNS, several agencies, including his own, frequently publish lists of brands which can be considered global. Most of the times, Russian brands are present there in a tiny minority.
Whereas a few Russian brand names, such as Lukoil , Standard Vodka and the girls pop group Tatu, (( which gained mainstream recognition with their release of “All the Things She Said” several years ago)) who may be known internationally, many others rarely make it to the brandscape of international consumers, unless they target a specific niche. In order to get an idea of what of Russian brands my own non-Russian friends were familiar with, I posted a quick informal survey on my Facebook profile prior to the event.
What often comes to the mind of the Western European consumer in terms of Russian brands, within the limits of my very informal survey, is not always names of commercialized brands. Instead, it’s often a series of symbols and associations, related to the image of Russia. Think matryoshkas and even the Bear, with the latter playing the role of the unofficial “brand mascot” of Russia (Read more about brand mascots here).
But as soon as you begin to explore more niche brands, you might discover that more Russian brands get on the international brand horizon. Among them are, for example, Digital October, a startup incubator in Moscow, known by the international web and tech startup community. Or Garage, a contemporary art center in Moscow that many art lovers around the world have surely heard about.
BRAND STRATEGY IS THE ANSWER
But do Russian brands need to strive for international recognition? And if yes, what benefits can it give them? First of all, the more quality Russian products appear on international markets, the better it will benefit the overall image of Russia long term. Secondly, there’s a strong link between having a successful brand and a sizable market share, as mentioned by another panel speaker, Givi Topchishvili, CEO of New York based Global Advertising Strategies. Third, the scarcity of Russian brands on the international brandscape presents a rare opportunity for them. By learning to think strategically in terms of their brand development, Russian brands would make the first important step towards market success. Placed in the framework of a coherent strategy, which begins from a clear definition of value proposition, and ends with knowing how to capture the hearts and minds of the target consumer, Russian brands will begin to position themselves as competitive players on international markets.
And what about the necessary ingredients Russian brands would need to use in order to make their brand strategies successful? In this respect, two important elements come to mind: design (both product design and visual identity as a whole, including web design) as well as better use of the web. With Russian being my mother tongue, I often visit sites of Russian companies, only to find old-fashioned design and complex user interfaces. Better looking and better functioning products and web sites are the required ingredients of successful brands.
Some Russian brands have understood this, and involved international brand and marketing experts early on in their brand strategy development. Such was the case of Standard Vodka, which relied on international brand, marketing and advertising agencies to shape its identity, launch the product, and set a long-term brand strategy framework. Outstanding design was not an after-thought, but an important element of Standard’s brand strategy.
IMPORTANCE OF SUCCESS LOCALLY
Although very few Russian brands are enjoying international fame, there are a few success stories if we look at the local market. In fact, the measure of brand success of Russian companies may be related to how fast, and for how much money, they are acquired by large international corporations. And such cases abide. Think of Unilever acquiring Concern Kalina, a Russian producer of cosmetics. Or PepsiCo buying Wim-Bill-Dann, a Russian juice and dairy group. PepsiCo is now launching its Quaker cereals under the name Chudo (“Miracle”)- one of the existing successful brand names in Wim-Bill-Dann’s portfolio, and there are even some speculations that the multinational intends to sell some of the products in its Russian portfolio abroad. Maybe such a roundabout way -- first becoming strong locally, then hitting overseas markets under the umbrella of PepsiCo, Danone or Unilever -- is a way for Russian brands to expand abroad?
To summarize, success of Russian brands will depend on how quickly they realize that brand strategy cannot be an afterthought, but key to overall business development.
Only by shaping and implementing a smart brand strategy framework will Russian brands set themselves on the path of market success internationally.