I was catching up on a bit of a reading last week and I came across an essay on what it takes to “build an international brand”. The article was all about logos, values, processes, messaging, customer service, products, services and other oh-so-important but somewhat “soulless” aspects of a brand.

Once I’d finished reading, I felt a bit deflated. This was an article, written by an “expert” (we’re all experts nowadays, so it seems) and I desperately hoped that it wouldn’t form the cornerstone of an organisation’s brand expansion plans!

Let me tell you why.

A different approach to international branding

I’m privileged to be working with an incredibly innovative and forward-thinking company in Austria at the moment, helping them develop and implement a content marketing and online marketing strategy. It’s a growing company with employees on just about every continent (they haven’t quite made it to Antarctica yet, but perhaps the future will rectify that!) and although much of the day-to-day work revolves around Austria and Germany from the head office, not a day goes by without a call to Russia; an exchange with people in Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium; and chats with colleagues in South Africa, the US and Hong Kong.

I can talk about the positive aspects of this sort of environment all day long: the stimulating conversations, the different perspectives, the different cultural values and expectations, the variety of communication styles, the unusual and often transferrable ideas, the extraordinary ideas that simply won’t work anywhere but in the country of origin… You get the idea.

If you think about these aspects, it easy to assume that managing such a diverse group of people dotted around the world might be a challenge. You might assume that ensuring that each local office shared similar values to the “parent” office would be equally challenging. And yet, as a sort of “outsider looking in”, it seems to work beautifully.

That’s not to say that there aren’t challenges that arise from time to time, but on the whole, the owner remains practically involved in the day to day running of the company and passionately interested in both the business itself and in every single person who works in the organisation.

An invitation to breakfast

At the end of March, the owner and his co-founder invited the diverse team in the Austrian office to breakfast. Not just the managers, or the salespeople, or the VIPs. Everyone. From the caretaker to the CEO himself, we gathered at a local breakfast venue, sitting at tables heaped with fresh fruit and muesli, baskets of fragrant breads and rolls, smoked meats and fish, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers and cheese, and of course, beautifully garnished juices and pots of tea and hot chocolate. Waiters buzzed around serving steaming cappuccinos and espressos, and 15 minutes after arriving, the meeting began.

It was, the owner explained, to be partly an information session and partly a celebration. And for the next 45 minutes, he and his management team provided updates on changes in the company, covering everything from sales to operations, production to marketing. Towards the end, he spoke a bit about people, about how his door was always open if individuals had a problem. He was a bit critical about people who sat in their offices, moaning to others, bringing the mood down, and he encouraged them to come to him before things got that far.

So far, so good. A pretty standard company update that you’d probably hear in growing businesses around the world, aside from the breakfast!

And then he said something that made me feel a bit emotional.

“I hope this update has been useful. In spite of being a little critical of some individuals who tend to complain a bit, I want you to know that I love working with you all. I enjoy coming into the office every day. And that’s what we’re here to celebrate. Along with our increased sales for the quarter of course!”

Then he held up a flute of freshly squeezed orange juice, and he grinned.

“Keep smiling!” he said, toasting us.

We held up our glasses, clapped, enjoyed breakfast, returned to the office and continued with our day, but his ending comments about how much enjoyed being in the office, of how much he enjoyed working with everyone, stuck with me.

Walking the talk

They weren’t just words, either. In the 6 months that I’ve been working with the company, I’ve often been struck by his cheerful gait, his interest in what people are doing, his excitement about anything from a new product to a new project.

In spite of having worked with hundreds of companies over the years – one of the joys of working as a consultant and freelancer – I have never heard a company owner talk so openly about enjoying not just his work, but his colleagues. When he spoke, I looked around the room and saw a fierce pride in the eyes of his team. They agreed. And for the few who perhaps didn’t, they wanted to agree, wanted to be part of that simple joy.

I’ve been thinking about this talk of his on and off for weeks. When I read the article I mentioned on what it takes to “build an international brand”, this story sprang to mind. Yes, the logo, values, messaging, services and so on are important, but the most important element in building a thriving international brand is, I believe, the people.

The breakfast meeting I described above? A wonderful example of how people of an organisation are the keystone of building an international brand, and how important brand values don’t come from a consultant’s toolkit, but from an inspiring, engaging and very, very human leader who people can relate to.

An international business and brand – with a soul

I realise that this sort of approach won’t work for all businesses. It probably won’t work for multi-national organisations of thousands of people.

It’s probably only possible if you have a leader or owner or founder with strong values themselves, who is passionate about attracting like-minded people to their business and guiding the growth of the business in a specific direction.

That said, anyone reading an article on how to “build an international brand” is likely to have a small enough business to be able to look at the human side of their organisation and spend time on getting that right first, rather than focusing on the more practical elements of international brand-building.

Perhaps then the result will be an international business and brand – with a soul.

The short summary

If you want to turn a business into an international brand with a soul, you need more than powerful design, strong messaging, products, services, sales and processes. You need people: people to lead to the way and who can attract others who can help them to blaze a trail into international markets whilst keeping it “human”.

That’s it!

If you like what you’ve read, let’s connect on LinkedIn. If you think a conversation about connecting, engaging and resonating with international audiences might be useful, please feel free to get in touch directly.