Have Brand, Will Travel

01/03/2013 7:00 am EST


In an consumer society like ours, image is everything. Minyanville.com contributor Diane Bullock takes a look at the products that slide upmarket or downmarket, in perception at least, when they travel.

Let’s say you’re not the most popular person in town. Whether earned or not, a certain reputation follows your every step like a dark, lingering shadow and no amount of bobbing and weaving can shake it off your trail.

So, what’s the easiest way to get distance from that unflattering persona? Distance...literally. Packing up and moving to a brand new place where no one knows you is an instant do-over, allowing you to shed your old skin for whatever face you want others to see.

The same rules of reinvention apply to even the most iconic of national brands. While companies may be forced to bear scarlet letters at home, those badges of shame can get Photoshopped right off their labels once they hang out a shingle on different soil. Minyanville has profiled six such image-challenged brands that went overseas for a change, and suddenly found themselves miraculously upmarket.

If you’ve visited the MoMA design store in Manhattan, you may have seen this high end, minimalist Japanese brand. Muji, which translates as “No Brand Goods,” specializes in sleek and streamlined products that adhere to a philosophy of unadorned beauty and simplicity in innovation and materials. The company’s guiding aesthetic aims to highlight the bare essence of form and function by eliminating all superfluous detail.

Take the “classic round design and easy-to-read face” that grace this mini analog clock. Truly, “a modern take on time.”

Or, depending on who you ask, an affordable 2.5-inch basic necessity in plastic. Nothing special.

In its homeland, Muji’s “brandless” wares are less fit for the curated shelves of Tokyo’s National Museum of Modern Art gift shop and more appropriate among thousands of off-brand items in a big box retailer, where they sell for up to half the price for which Americans are coveting them.

A well-meaning New York Times City Room reporter, swept up in Muji’s designer chic at the MoMA store, considered buying one as a thank-you gift for a woman in Tokyo. “You can’t do that!” her Japanese-American friend admonished. “It would be like buying a present from Target!”

NEXT PAGE: Reinventing Themselves Abroad

In North America, BlackBerry has been all but blackballed, deemed a dinosaur of a device by smartphone consumers. Waterloo, Ontario-based Research In Motion (RIMM) is seen as out-of-touch, not only in the US but also on its home turf, where Canadians are opting for Apple's (AAPL) iPhone and Google's (GOOG) Android devices by a wide margin.

A hop across the ocean and a skip over the equator and it’s a totally different story. South Africa, for example, is pining for the BlackBerry, especially when it comes to the hardest and savviest users to please: kids. The barometer for what’s hip, that is, the Sunday Times Generation Next Brand Survey Awards, deemed that BlackBerry was it. At its annual ceremony over the summer, BlackBerry nabbed “Coolest Cellphone,” “Coolest High-Tech Gadget,” and “Coolest Brand Overall” for the second year running.

Perhaps the brand will get us Westerners to look up from our Apple and Android products and take notice once its criminally overdue BlackBerry 10 OS debuts at the end of January. The jury is still out, but early reviews are promising.

A pretty reliable indicator that a brand’s image may be in trouble is when part of its name ubiquitously becomes a derogatory prefix. In America, putting “Mc” before a word imbues it with some of the worst aspects of our culture, be it the low-quality, dead-end McJob or the super-sized footprint made by the homogenized, cookie cutter McMansion. If I’m eating McDonald’s (MCD), it means I’m probably a) hungover and b) sitting in my car.

Imagine, however, an alternate reality where spinach and parmesan-stuffed chicken tenders, chilled gazpacho, endive, escarole, and chicory salads, and torta della nonna are enjoyed in soft, brown suede booths atop textured, faux wood flooring, surrounded by drop pendant lights and crisp, white walls with just the occasional pop of yellow color. That’s exactly the menu Mickey Ds has cooked up overseas (accompanied by higher price points) and the designer touches it has given its digs.

Either kids from Europe, Australia, and even Asia are far more sophisticated than young Americans , or their McDonald’s isn’t meant for them. And in a few years, the same may be true for our own Happy Meal-inhaling generation. An over $1 billion renovation project will overhaul the menus and decors of most of the franchise’s 14,000 US locations by 2015. Can we say McChic?

NEXT PAGE: Different Perception Abroad |pagebreak|

Browse its US website and you’ll find ad copy touting “trusted,” “durable,” and “flame resistant” as the selling points of the Carhartt clothing line. A brand of high-performance workwear designed to withstand “even the toughest jobs,” Carhartt‘s boots, coveralls, and breakaway vests with reflective strips have been outfitting America’s construction crews, certainly not its fashion runway models.

Hearing that trendy Europeans are clamoring for Carhartt doesn’t necessarily mean chemical splash protection is haute couture or that the continent’s fashionistas have become hazard-risk-category-level-conscious. It’s that the company made itself over across the pond as a high-end brand under the Work In Progress (WIP) label throughout Western Europe as well as Russia, Australia, Japan, Hong Kong, and South Korea. This summer, Carhartt added Lisbon to its list of locations that carries its flashy collection of European streetwear.

But Carhartt didn't leave us behind altogether in its revamp. The brand has treated its original stomping grounds to its designer duds at exactly one post. So next time you're boutiquing in Soho, among the Phillip Lims, and the Ben Shermans, and the Dunderdons, perhaps you’ll spot a neon pink sign illuminating handpicked, slim, European-fit shirts and jeans that probably won't appeal much to the average septic inspector.

By American beer enthusiasts’ standards, it’s watered-down, mass-produced swill (and other less print-friendly pejoratives). Five in its family were counted among the worst beers in the world. But when the Chinese reach for a cold one, it’s quite often a Bud.

As a spendy import that goes for three times as much as its domestic counterparts, Anheuser-Busch’s (BUD) flagship product is not just a premium brand in China, but a status symbol among its people. One country’s exotic elixir is another’s swamp water. Remember, this is the same beer that put talking frogs in its ads at home.

“Foreign premium beer has become more and more popular, especially among youngsters who have higher education, higher income, and higher acceptance of exotic goods,” Olive Xia, an analyst with Core Pacific-Yamaichi International Ltd., told Bloomberg.

Consumer psychology says that a high price tag is often perceived, rightly or not, as a mark of quality and luxury. Naming your product “King of Beers” isn’t a bad trick, either. Add to that well-positioned sponsorships and you’ve got yourself a home run, or rather, a Kung Fu knockout.

In China, not all status symbols are created equal. In fact, some are outright ostracizing. As an applicant interviewing for a job in Jilin’s capital of Changchun, owning an iPhone can work against you, and even cost you the job.

It’s not that the smartphone bears the scars of its assemblers’ socioeconomic injustice or human rights abuses. In one particular employer’s eyes, it stands for something much worse: prodigal privilege.

“Students who have iPhones don’t work,” the interviewer allegedly said. “Everything you have was bought by your parents. You haven’t bought anything by working yourself. You are wealthy and can’t stand the stress. Working at our company is tough. It calls for someone who can take the pain and suffering."

While iPhone discrimination may not be a full-blown trend in the People’s Republic, it’s entirely possible that the brand is starting to take on new meaning.

By Diane Bullock, Contributor, Minyanville.com

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