Not lost in translation. How to launch an overseas brand in Britain.

Why Asian businesses need to nuance their brands for the UK.

Russell Holmes
Russell Holmes, 17.06.2021

One of the challenges of scaling a food brand internationally is anticipating and understanding which aspects will resonate with a new audience, and which won’t. Often those new to a brand will have a completely different reading of it to those who’ve grown up with it as a part of their lives. Compare McDonalds’ brash attitude in the US to how it communicates in the UK, where it adopts a softer tone, even appearing as a coffee shop that’s competing with Pret.

Many international brands have had decades to adapt and built local teams skilled at understanding how their global vision filters down to a local audience. For newcomers who are making their first move into the UK, it’s more challenging. When it comes to brands stepping from Asia to the UK, those challenges are often amplified.

As a nation we’re increasingly well travelled, and aspects of Asian culture that were unknown three decades ago are now relatively commonplace. We now embrace the subtleties of sushi, and have taken Thai cuisine to heart — the local pub serving Pad Thai has become a cliché. However look a little further afield and much of Malaysian, Filipino and Singaporean food remains a mystery. And customers don’t always have the time or the inclination to ‘discover’ a new cuisine.

Like a British food concession suddenly pitching up in Kowloon or Hanoi, Asian businesses shouldn’t expect to seamlessly enter the UK market without first addressing their brands. They need to understand the subtle ways in which they’ll be perceived differently here from back home. Which aspects of the brand resonate, which they need to amplify, which to play down… and perhaps which to leave for their local audience.

Asian brands need to understand how they fit into the British view of their country and culture, and nuance their brand accordingly, avoiding the obvious clichés whilst building familiarity.

A brand’s role is multifaceted — from creating an emotional connection with the customer, to succinctly distilling an attitude or personality. A great brand does all of this, but when you’re entering a new market it also does two other important things—it helps to introduce the customer into the experience, and communicates trust in something new and novel.

Food concepts coming from other cultures often need to be explained or demystified. Bubble tea is a great example of this —my first foray into London’s Chinatown to experience Boba Tea was a baffling, frustrating afternoon. Endless handwritten menus and poorly organised lists of possible ingredients, with layers and layers of information needing to be sifted and understood before choosing a drink.

It seemed ridiculously difficult to decipher. Looking deeper, many of London’s Bubble tea stores were franchises of Asian businesses who’d simply dragged and dropped their concepts from Taiwan with little regard for how the experience felt for any Londoner without Asian roots. They’d concentrated on a small coterie of enthusiasts, but missed a bigger opportunity.

This insight informed us when creating Biju Bubble Tea, a brand that would appeal to a Boba superfan just off a flight from Singapore, as well as enticing those who’d never tried it. The brand completely reinvented the perception of bubble tea for a London audience, without alienating teenagers from the South East diaspora.

This is perhaps the biggest challenge for Asian food concepts coming to the UK—how to create or refine their brands to respond to a new location, without forgetting their heritage. You don’t want to make it seem unfamiliar for those who knew the brand from Asia, whilst making it accessible for someone who’s never heard of the brand… even the food.

Our work with Biju led to projects for other Asian clients —from launching London’s first dedicated Chinese Hotpot restaurant, Shuang Shuang, to helping one of Asia’s largest QSR brands, Jollibee, refine their brand and messaging to appeal to a younger UK audience before rolling out nationwide in 2021. Our starting point for all these projects has been to immerse ourselves in not only the food, but also the rituals surrounding it. Approaching any existing brand not only with fresh eyes, but with an understanding of the heritage and the ambition.

Here are three tips for Asian brands making the step into the UK:

  1. To many Brits, Asia is less a vast continent and more a series of disparate points of reference: Manga comics, Bang Bang Chicken, K-Pop, Ramen noodles. Work with an agency who show a willingness to understand the cultural nuances, and create a meaningful, coherent brand, not just a watered down pastiche.
  2. English is a de-facto international language for many brands—but when launching in the UK your messaging will need an overhaul to ensure it’s on point with native speakers. Develop a brand personality and voice that resonates with British people. Look at your messaging, even product descriptions. What might work at home could be just too bland for a British audience who revel in humour, puns and word play.
  3. Finally, just because you’re number one in your home territory doesn’t mean that you’ll immediately be famous in the UK. Find a brand agency who aren’t afraid to tell you what is and isn’t working with your existing brand. Be prepared to think and act more like a start-up who’s launching a new concept, rather than a large successful operator.