There were just a handful of global brands 40 years ago, writer and editor Elizabeth Wasserman pointed out in a recent article for Inc. Magazine. The list included household names like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Colgate-Palmolive, IBM, and Shell. Years later, companies like Nike, Microsoft, Apple, and Honda joined the ranks of brands going global.

The Fortune 500 is turning over faster than ever, access to global markets is easier than ever, and the opportunity to elevate a brand to a globally-recognized presence is now an achievable goal for a marketer’s tenure at a growing company. With emerging markets growing almost twice as fast as the developed world, there is a strong opportunity for brands to venture into international terrain, particularly in regions like China, India, Brazil, The Philippines, Vietnam, Poland, and Turkey—the list goes on.

However, success varies widely, as business professors Rajiv Lal and Marcel Corstjens pointed out for Harvard Business Review. To grow your market position in a specific geography, your brand needs to adopt an internationalization strategy that tailors your messaging, products, and visual identity to your local market. The following lessons learned can help guide your planning.

Cultural intelligence is a must

A powerful brand is in the eye of the beholder—which is why you need to see your brand through your beholders’ eyes. Every country has its own unique history, culture, and sociology. What’s funny to one group, for instance, may be offensive to another. Before bringing your products to new markets, you need to understand the consumers that you’re trying to reach. That’s where cultural intelligence enters the picture.

Cultural intelligence begins where emotional intelligence stops, London Business School Professor P. Christopher Earley and University of Colorado at Boulder Professor Elaine Mosakowski explain. Through emotional intelligence, you can understand the motivators, drivers, and passions of individual people. Cultural intelligence builds upon this concept to illuminate the threads that tie groups—societies, demographic segments, and entire countries—together.

You think before acting. You observe behaviors around you. You analyze patterns. And finally, you make a judgment call based on the cultural trends that you’ve identified.

For brands, cultural intelligence means knowing what your target market cares about. Instead of transposing an existing product line, you’ll need to make adaptations and in some cases, you may need to build an entirely new brand from the ground up.

McKinsey, for instance, cites the example of Wrigley chewing gum. Instead of just reselling a product that had performed well in American markets, Wrigley took the time to tailor its offering to Chinese consumers. Tactics included gum flavored with herbs and grapefruit and an extensive consumer education program regarding the health benefits of chewing up. Wrigley also established a presence within the millions of small outlets where Chinese consumers shop.

Wrigley had achieved a 40% market share of the $2B Chinese gum market at the time of McKinsey publishing this report.

Teams provide the ultimate knowledge base

Professors Hae-Jung Hong and Yves Doz, in a 2013 Harvard Business Review article, make a powerful observation—that commodity usage varies, often subtly, from country to country. As ubiquitous as an item may seem, there will be country and cultural specific variations in how someone may use it. The microwave ovens that are common to American households, for instance, may be present but utilized differently in South Asian markets where domestic help is more commonplace.

To a casual observer, these nuances may be difficult to see. To someone integrated with a particular culture, the differences are obvious. That’s why Hong and Doz encourage brands to build multi-cultural teams at the executive and operational levels.

The two professors cite L’Oreal as an example brand that exemplifies this idea.

As Hong and Doz point out, L’Oreal’s initial success came from the leadership of its French management team. The company’s management team was relatively homogenous with employees being promoted from within and a leadership team that has consisted of only five CEOs in its company history. To succeed overseas, however, the company needed a stronger understanding of the ways that consumers, across countries, wear their makeup.

L’Oreal, in recent years, has built multicultural teams, with direct experiences in the company’s target market, throughout its organization. The perspective added from cultural experts and area natives, according to the company’s executive leadership, has helped the company transform from a French makeup brand to a global leader. As Hung and Doz point out, multicultural executives are actively involved with product development in New York, Tokyo, Shanghai, Rio, and Mumbai.

With this approach, the cosmetics giant has built a portfolio of international brands across cultures and now has offices in more than 130 countries. Slowly and steadily, the cosmetics leader has been growing its sales presence in developing countries in Asia Pacific, Africa, and the Middle East. Between 2004 and 2012, L’Oreal’s revenue increased by half and profits have almost doubled, despite the U.S. financial crisis.

The subtleties drive your reputation

Paul Williams, founder of international marketing firm Idea Sandbox, encourages companies to think of their brands as their reputation.

“Building a reputation in any new market, including overseas, involves a first impression, which comes from the initial interactions someone has with your company, products, and services,” he said in Inc. Magazine.

It’s this reason why you’ll need to pay careful attention to the subtleties of your brand identity. Here is a checklist, inspired by Wasserman’s Inc article, to guide you.

  • Get legal involved early. Involve your corporate counsel to make sure that you’re in line with local patent and trademark law. Ensure that your brand presence remains protected in new markets where you’re aiming to establish dominance and market share.
  • Double check your name. When naming your business or product lines, you’ll need to take a careful look into etymology, cultural significance, and translations. You’ll need to make sure that the names make sense and are culturally sensitive to your markets. 
  • Pay attention to your colors. Colors and color schemes have different meanings across cultures. Make sure that you understand the sociological significance of the moods, sentiment and themes that your choices inspire. For a helpful guide to color theory, check out this thread on Quora.
  • Plan your packaging. Know the laws about what you’re selling, and know how your display strategy measures up to your competition. If you’re shipping food internationally, for instance, you may need to disclose more nutritional details. 
  • Face-test your logo. Make sure that your visual identity is friendly to the audience that you’re trying to reach and the brand that you’re trying to build. Double check that there are no offensive undertones in your visual identity, and make sure that everything makes sense.

These subtleties are mission-critical. Williams recounts an experience with Starbucks in which the coffee giant launched a loved holiday drink, the Gingerbread Latte, in Germany. Even though gingerbread is a favorite cookie in Germany, sales of the drink flopped until Starbucks rebranded the drink as the “Lebkuchen Latte.” A subtle linguistic change yielded a dramatic sales impact.

When taking your brand overseas, start with your target customers. Get to know your new market as if you were selling to a new prospect or making a new friend. Pay attention to the subtleties, consult with local experts, and never jump to conclusions without data. Empathy will be your best success driver.