When local brands are presented with the opportunity to go national, conflicting emotions can arise. On the one hand, there’s enormous potential for growth. On the other, there’s the very real fear of losing what has been for many companies most integral to their success—the feeling of soul and connection to their founding communities.
Investing companies may also wonder if an acquired brand will uphold its potential in a broader market. What makes some companies falter, and others soar?
When we distill all the attributes of companies that successfully navigate the path from local brand to international player, we see the same factor appear again and again: a clear, validated brand promise. Specifically, this means a succinct articulation of the unique value you provide, and intentional, well-designed delivery on this promise during each moment and interaction with your consumer base.
Here’s what it takes...
Whether you’re launching a brand overhaul or performing routine brand maintenance as you prepare for your place on the national or international stage, the necessary insight you need to succeed has two timeframes: immediate, and future.
First, you need to ensure that you’re bringing in audiences across your strategic planning, whether white space mapping quantitative studies, audience needs analyses, or qualitative ethnographic accounts. Know who your customers are, what they want, and how they feel you’re currently delivering.
Second, consider how your current brand, category, and audience may shift in the coming months or years. Brands that succeed as they scale invoke both adaptability and relatability, which requires constant social listening, industry awareness, and internal reflection.
It also bears mentioning that learning happens both ways: the acquirer must respect the new audience and get to know them, too (that’s what you’re buying, right?). It’s not just the small brand scaling up, but also the big brand thinking local or small.
Once you’ve examined the current and future iterations of your strategy, don’t be afraid to change what should. You have one chance to make the right first impression, and holding on to aspects of your business that no longer serve you is a death knell for innovation.
When VSA Partners teamed up with Mack Trucks, they had been acquired by Volvo and were struggling to maintain relevance in the marketplace. We were tasked with modernizing this American icon without compromising its heritage.
Through field research, VSA found that Mack’s current focus on logistics was having a negative impact on its consumer perception—audiences found the brand impersonal. With this insight, VSA launched a campaign to build a more meaningful, direct relationship between customer and truck. We communicated the brand’s sense of independence and elevated its audiences’ commitment to a greater purpose through a series of activations from dealer marketing to events to broader advertising. From consumer insight to implementation, our strategic positioning propelled Mack Trucks back into the relevancy by communicating its longstanding value and leaning on the emotion and humanity of the people behind the brand.
As you scale, the one thing that shouldn’t expand is your brand promise. A brand promise should come from an understanding of what’s true about the brand as well the community. The tighter and more focused the brand promise is, the easier it is for your brand to be a filter for everything you do (keeping that spark you had from day one).
It’s tempting to say more as you reach more people, enter new markets, or launch new products. But the more you say, the less people retain, and the more you water down your message by trying to be everything to everyone. When we work with brands who feel they have lost their way, very often we find that brand over-communication is the culprit—their core promise has been lost in a sea of messaging. So once you have your core promise, stick with it and leverage it thoughtfully. As you activate the brand, consider the role of each touchpoint, communication, and asset, both on their own and in coordination together. Each piece should reflect and deliver the brand promise.
Our work with Goose Island began after the company was acquired by AB InBev, and the brand was grappling with how to maintain its Chicago-founded identity as it prepared to launch nationally. Afterall, in the craft beer world the perception of a brand as “big” can damage its reputation. Through market research, we found that Goose Island consumers were loyal, but considered themselves “tryers.” Rather than fight this common sentiment among craft beer drinkers, we embraced it with the new tagline: “We don’t need to be the only beer you drink. We just want to be the best beer you drink.” We also worked closely with Goose Island to infuse their urban heritage throughout their branding and packaging. Because the design felt intentional and true to its spirit, we were able to use national and local campaigns to introduce Goose Island and its brand to new consumers while keeping it grounded in its founding sensibility. Authentic urban heritage put Goose Island on the map, and helped the brand scale without losing its soul.
While some brands undertake this connection with their roots from the beginning, others realize that they lost it somewhere along the way. When we worked with Converse, their brand was struggling to maintain relevance in the shoe industry. Competitors and consumers alike had become obsessed with technology and performance—two areas where Converse lagged. After they were acquired by Nike, the brand was looking for a relaunch to establish a relationship with the next generation, and to remind consumers of their place in the market. Rather than try and broaden the brand message and make Converse into something it was not, we helped Converse “rediscover their Converse-ness” by focusing the brand promise as the true voice of the optimistic rebels. These optimistic rebels are the non-comforming creators and change-makers who seek self expression and authenticity above all else. This simple idea was distributed across its entire portfolio, unified as a rally cry across product design, retail, and a global market. The impact was immediate: Converse became the fastest growing brand in the Nike portfolio, moving from $500M to $5B in six years.
A brand promise is not just a slogan, it’s an actionable, tangible way of operating that should be infused into every touchpoint and experience a consumer has with a brand. A website can and should feel like the brand as much as talking to a sales rep or reading a CSR report. And for Goose Island and Manuka Honey, across messaging to brand identity, it all came down to creating a sense of place.
Our work with Manuka Health, a leading New Zealand natural health company specializing in bee products, evoked these strong identifiers through a refreshed branding campaign. Manuka Health was named from the single tree species bees forage upon, and competitors were using the “manuka” name to pull customers away. The company needed to establish itself as the authentic, real deal, and a leader in its category. We repositioned Manuka Health as the “co-pilot” on the customer’s wellness journey, and brought the idea of re-naturing: the benefit of connecting with nature to bring out your best. This collaborative spirit was connected visually with a bright and energetic visual system that contrasted with the muted, sleepy tones of other brands in the category, and paired with a relatable, bold voice to increase approachability and capture attention. The visual system and sense of identity was so successful, we brought it to Manuka Health’s biggest markets in the U.S., China, Japan, and Germany, communicating the message in each market to fit the culture without losing the common thread.
Ready for launch
While scaling up is the goal for many brands today, the risks of losing that original spark and authenticity are real and do erode reputation over time. Scaling while retaining the identity and relevance that made the brand successful to begin with is possible. It requires foresight and perseverance, a commitment to the principles and touchpoints that made the company successful, as well as a willingness to embrace new ways of being. The more you can stay committed and true to your promise, the more successful you’ll be at maintaining that spark and protecting your core as you grow.
Everyday, Jess frames, defines and brings to life the indescribable. At VSA, she’s researched, workshopped and story-told her way across the most nascent tech and far reaching brands: Nike, Google, Kiehl’s, NVIDIA, Fidelity Investments. With in-house and agency experience, Jess is at her best when uncovering the human truth driving a brand and bringing it to life for real people, always aligning business goals and brand objectives. Prior to VSA, Jess created and led the content marketing program at Relationship Science, a big data SaaS firm in New York City. Before this, she was a writer with Siegel+Gale, the global brand experience firm. Jess holds a BS in Psychology and a second major in Professional Writing from Carnegie Mellon University.