Is a globalized world making people assert their identities?

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Cover image sourced from Digg; Author image courtesy of author; Featured images sourced from, in order of appearance: Urban Glasgow, ViceF&B News

Alongside - or in reaction to - globalization, it appears that the social ideologies of people all over the world are becoming more isolationist. From Brexit and Donald Trump to battles for independence waged everywhere from Scotland to Spain, the politics of identity are undeniably becoming more pronounced. 

In the latest in a series of posts from one of our longtime partners Taan Worldwide - a global network of carefully selected independent advertising & communications agencies - Taan member and Director of Levy McCallum and Root & Toot John McCallum discusses the roots of these tensions, and what they mean for brands in the future. 

John McCallum, TAAN member, on globalization

When I was asked to contribute this piece, I was pretty sure I was going to write about Pokemon Go.

I’m a father of three young children who have developed something close to an obsession with this game. Its combination of Augmented Reality with ‘collecting’ (something all children and quite a few adults have always done) was so simple it really interested me. But I’ve a feeling a lot will be written about Pokemon and its grip on current culture by people a lot more qualified than me.

When I was the age my children are today, video games were in their infancy. Pong had been invented but was still a few years away from ubiquity and Space Invaders were still a couple of lightyears away from making a splash in the playgrounds I frequented.

Indeed, everything seemed different then. The main street of the north Glasgow suburb I was raised in consisted of a row of around 30 shops, most of them locally owned by people who lived within a couple of miles of there. Two newsagents were part of bigger chains, but these chains were both Scottish owned. I attended the local school and my school uniform, bought every summer, was made in the Scottish borders and sold by a couple of shops in the main street.

Today, my children also go to their local school, but their uniform is made in Bangladesh and sold by Yorkshire based ASDA who are owned by Walmart. A glance at that same main street shows fast food outlets, national and international chains have replaced the locally owned shops. This isn’t some rose-tinted walk down memory lane though, nor am I going to point out that globalization is alive and well in Western Europe and beyond - you’ve probably already noticed that.

Glasgow-1970s

What’s been catching my eye is the reaction to this globalization.

As our high streets, shopping malls, media consumption and popular culture becomes increasingly homogenised so our politics and, more tellingly, our electorate, becomes increasingly nationalist. Now I can’t say for sure these two phenomena are connected, but both seem to be on the same upward trajectory.

In the 70s, my father drove cars made in the English midlands; today his car is made in Germany. Not just his, either - over 800,000 new cars were exported from Germany to the UK in 2015, there were 2.6 million new cars registered in the UK in 2015 but only 14% were produced in the UK. We clearly really like German engineering, just not enough to want to be in the European Union with it. 

June’s Brexit vote caught many observers by surprise, yet it’s been clear for a while now that European electorates were increasingly rejecting traditional left-wing right-wing politics and replacing it with identity politics.

Living in Scotland I’ve seen this first hand. Although outright independence was narrowly rejected a couple of years ago nationalist politics now dominates the political agenda, nationalist politicians control the Scottish Parliament and the vast majority of Scottish MPS in the UK parliament are now Scottish nationalists whose raison d’etre is to break up the United Kingdom. There was no coup; these are democratically elected politicians.

The Brexit vote was another manifestation of this. A feeling that politicians ‘elsewhere’ have too much control over the everyday lives of ‘ordinary’ people and a general unhappiness with how globalization is affecting some people’s lives.

The rise of nationalism isn’t peculiar to the UK.

Spain has two very strong secessionist movements in Catalonia and the Basque country. In Belgium the split between the Flemish and French speaking populations is increasingly pronounced, the split between the ‘North’ and the ‘South’ is once again being discussed in Italy, Corsica retains a desire for increased autonomy from France and whilst thankfully violence is now rare various strands of nationalism continue to dominate Irish politics.

European countries without strong internal nations or regions are not immune to this either. Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, France, Greece, Switzerland, Hungary, Turkey and Austria have all experienced recent elections where parties who self-recognise as nationalist have enjoyed significant popular support. This is before you even consider the countries formed from former Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.

scottish-independence-activists-in-catalonia-poll-283-1415636857

It’s not only confined to Europe either. In the USA Donald Trump’s policy of building a near 2,000 mile long wall along its southern border together with his stated desire to renegotiate international trade deals and long standing pacts with allies has resonated with a significant percentage of the American population.

It feels counter intuitive that as cultures and experiences become increasingly similar so the desire to self-identify as ‘different’ increases. 

Where does this leave local and global brands (very few of which will want to get involved in politics after all)?

Well, many brands are already closely identified with ‘nations’ - at least with a small ‘n’. Guinness is arguably as recognisable a symbol of Ireland as the shamrock or the harp, and is anything more American than McDonalds in the eyes of the rest of the world?

I’ve already mentioned the high regard for German automobiles. Add in Italian food, wine from France, Australia or Chile, minimalist designed flat-pack furniture from Sweden or indeed whisky from Scotland and it’s clear the shifting sands of geo-politics aren’t of immediate concern to brands for whom country of origin is an important part of their brand story. Ironically the European Union has worked hard to introduce, and police, its PDO and PGI programme. Protected Designation of Origin and Protected Geographical Indication have become increasingly important for certain brands and products in the food and drink sectors in particular. 

Will this always be the case? I’m not sure.

I smiled a few years ago when visiting the United States for the first time and seeing Bacardi rum marketing. There was no mention of Cuba at all. Yet in Europe, the brand’s Cuban heritage was a huge selling point and the focus of much of its advertising.

Bacardi-US

Brands will find it increasingly difficult to run different campaigns in different markets in the future; globalization and the internet make that virtually impossible. If you’re espousing nationality in one market there’s no way that won’t seep into a different market where it might not be as attractive a message.

There are recent brands that have made no attempt to overtly associate with their original home. Red Bull springs to mind, the hugely successful challenger product and leading energy drink is a global brand, but not one you associate with its country of origin: Austria. Likewise, although I know Pokemon is Japanese, my children don’t - its country of origin is entirely irrelevant to them and plays no part in their enjoyment of the game.

I also know for a fact, having spent decades in marketing, that consumers in this country at least will discard a locally owned brand for an international one in a heartbeat if it has any benefits the local one doesn’t. Something new is always attractive at least at first. There is very little sentiment in consumerism at times.

So, as the world becomes a smaller, more connected place so many people in Europe - and perhaps other countries - increasingly embrace identity politics in favour of other ideologies. They feel a need to proclaim their identity in places they perhaps no longer recognise as being ‘theirs’. Whilst people have largely embraced the perceived benefits of globalization they are increasingly rejecting any centralising of power or authority.

It seems that brands can be global but politicians shouldn’t be; pop culture can be borderless but social ideology can’t.

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John McCallum is a partner and director of Levy McCallum and Root & Toot, a food and drink specialist marketing agency. With offices in Glasgow and Belfast, they work across the UK and Ireland. John is also a European Governor of Taan WorldwideOperating since 1936, TAAN exists to enhance the intelligence, expertise, reach and effectiveness of their members, through cooperative learning and shared capabilities

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