Every good marketer knows it: you have to localize to succeed in international waters. Atlanta-based The Coca-Cola Co.’s secret recipe for Coca-Cola can vary by location. McDonald’s Corp., Oak Brook, Ill., offers “Le” Big Mac in Paris with a side of beer but upholds its kosher menu at some of its restaurants in Israel by not including the cheeseburger. And yet, how do you apply this need to adapt to a local market when the promise of your product is the uniqueness of its origin? Do you risk losing your key differentiator when you embrace local needs?

Two brands recently faced this difficult challenge of adapting to the U.S. market while promoting the specificity of their “terroir,” their local specificity. At the core of the concept of terroir is the idea that you can’t make this product anywhere else than “here” — wherever that may be. Probably the most famous example is Champagne. After all, you can make lovely bubbly in many places around the world (Prosecco, anyone?), but Champagne can only come from Champagne, France. And that’s what makes it so special.

Unfortunately, that argument doesn’t always work to the advantage of the product in question. The complexity of the French wine industry, with all of its region-based jargon, has certainly hindered the development of their sales here in the United States, where Americans want to buy by grape varietal. Here, American products — such as wines from Napa, Calif., and Oregon — which are completely adapted to the local market, have often ridden over the argument of quality of origin.

For Cognac, a brandy-like liquor produced in the region just above Bordeaux in France, the balance was tough to find. Purists in the region and abroad will sip their Courvoisier or Hennessy from large snifters. But, unlike in the United Kingdom or China, the local U.S. market is not a market for digestive drinks. Marketing wisdom, therefore, would suggest that you adapt your communication to local consumption habits. In the case of the United States, that means promoting the use of this eaux-de-vie in cocktails, the way Americans drink hard liquor. (Sidecar cocktail, anyone?) The challenge is that the quality of the product can be lost in the mix, and that is where the real marketing challenge kicks in: educating those trendsetters behind the bars that can tell the difference in product quality and who determine what product ends up in the glass. This requires extremely targeted marketing for a very specific message — an educational message that justifies the specificities of local quality differences while working with local experts to adapt the usage to local taste buds.

Similarly, Wines of Morocco had to work really hard at adapting its traditional, heritage-based Moroccan wines to a market where that history simply did not resonate. In this Mediterranean kingdom located in North Africa, the industry uses controlled origin labels, following the terroir approach French wine-makers imported in the 19th century. But how do you even start to bring up the specificity of a local terroir to an audience that doesn’t even know you make the product? Recognizing that the message was getting lost in the shuffle, Wines of Morocco did what few old world wine regions dared to do: It completely transformed. The company created new brand names, entirely revamped the look and feel of its brands, completely transformed their packaging and labels to stand out on American shelves, and even adapted to the local taste profiles. The brands might temporarily lose the message of terroir and of quality control based on their traditions, but at least they are getting noticed enough to receive industry accolades … and the wines are selling. As the brands become more established, they can highlight the intricacies of their uniqueness, but only once people actually are interested enough to listen. 

 In a world where products cross borders with more and more ease and consumers are constantly in search of new experiences, local heritage is a huge asset. That is what will justify the extra costs associated with the importation and transportation of the products compared with local adaptations. But marketers have to balance that local territorial pride with willful adaptability to local habits.