As pan-European marketing and research increases, so does the likelihood of language confusion.

Michael Schumacher’s description of a recent performance in a live TV interview as “surprising even for me” sounded arrogant in the extreme. The Formula One ace was trying to be self-deprecatory, but got snared by a simple error of language, says RSL divisional director Martin Oxley. “What he meant to say was that it was surprising to him, but because he speaks English so well he doesn’t get any leeway. Months on he is still trying to live down his reputation for being arrogant, and all because of one little word.”

The annals of marketing are littered with examples of how significant one or two little words can be. Several years ago computer company Wang had to junk 4 million brochures from its German marketers that bore the legend “Wang cares”. Rolls-Royce was warned off the name Silver Mist as mist means shit in German, and someone should have talked VW out of calling a car Sharan in the UK. Apologies to all those so named, but how many people are going to want a badge that evokes white stilettos and dancing round handbags?

As pan-European marketing increases, so does the need for reliable and perceptive international market research. The potential pitfalls of both qualitative and quantitative work make the moon’s surface look smooth. Language is a major crater.

Schumacher’s unfortunate slip of the tongue illustrates for Oxley the importance of getting the language right. “It is absolutely essential,” he says. New Solutions research director Alex Author agrees: “The most common problem is one of language at the simplest level of communication. You have to be extremely careful at the translation stage.”

“For example,” notes Oxley, “value for money is not a common phrase in Spain, its equivalent is ‘price for product’.”

RSL qualitative director Ann Ward says that words have different cultural weights. “In the Middle East, payment is a transactional word – it refers to repaying a debt. People have different associations with certain words. Training shoes are usually associated with slightly aggressive, alternative street fashion. Yet in Italy, describing trainers as ‘conservative’ is seen as a positive attribute because the word has different associations.”

Some languages are more flexible than others, says Davies Riley-Smith Maclay director Lucy Banister: “Spanish lends itself to double entendres, while German has a much more formal structure and use. British advertising likes to play around with words and use them in a different or unusual context, but a typical German response to that sort of treatment is, ‘What is that doing there?’.”

The cultural divide between east and west and northern and southern Europe is vast. On a practical level, the differences in climate and infrastructure dictate widely varying consumer expectations. “A survey on floor-cleaning products across Europe would have to take account of the fact Scandinavians have wooden floors, there are lots of tiled and stone floors in the Mediterranean and in the UK everyone has carpets,” says Author. Tumble driers are a rarity in southern Europe and low-temperature washing means cold water to most Spaniards. “It is still common to do your laundry in the wash-house by the side of the square,” says Ward. “Spanish consumers have a completely different set of needs.”

Then there are quirks of nationality to take into account. Purchase-intention scales across Europe for new products frequently peak in Italy because Italians have a propensity to over-claim their likelihood to buy, says Oxley. “Whereas German results are much closer to reality. If Germans say they will buy a product, they probably will,” he says.

Both qualitative and quantitative specialists emphasise the need for careful and detailed background research and stress the importance of using trusted native research partners. “We wouldn’t dream of parachuting in a researcher from another country,” says one. “You have to have local researchers for the fieldwork.” There is no substitute for local knowledge and experience and no shortcut to cultural fluency, which is essential for qualitative research. “If a consumer described a man as being a real Dirty Den, only someone truly immersed in the culture would pick up and understand the reference to a character in East-Enders. The same is obviously true of other countries,” says Ward.

“You can’t afford to miss those sorts of allusions, they are so rich in illustration.”

Author concurs: “Unless you’ve lived in the country, watched the TV, worn the fashions and consumed the brands you can’t hope to pick up the wealth of information on offer or interpret how cultural elements stack up against each other.”

Qualitative research into advertising must be based on a thorough understanding of the country’s visual history, prevailing attitudes and advertising culture and conventions. The image of a man with horns or antlers on his head, which means little in England, signifies a cuckold in France, Spain and Italy, says Banister. “Detached and semi-detached houses are unusual in France and Italy, so visuals using the typical British semi are inappropriate. When we used stimulus material featuring a woman in a supermarket, which had been produced in the UK and which showed her wearing a tracksuit, the Italian women said she should be wearing a suit.”

Advertising stereotypes spring readily to mind – the French obsession with sex, the German with logic and the British with humour; Banister acknowledges that different nationalities have different expectations of advertising. “What’s old hat and boring in one country is novel in another. An ad using lots of fast cuts made Scandinavian audiences think the product must be for young people. In fact, it was aimed at 25- to 34-year-old women, but the technique has only recently arrived in Finland and Sweden and is mainly used to target youth,” she says.

Attitudes are changing and converging as the generations that have grown up with international travel and mass media reach maturity, claims Banister. German audiences have responded warmly to the increasing use of humour in advertising, for example.

Avoiding the many and varied pitfalls of pan-European research involves careful planning, briefing and project management. Consensus of opinion is that the best way to organise a multinational project is through a network of long-term partnerships. If, however, you are looking at new partners, it’s worth checking them out with their previous British clients. It is also wise to check their recruitment and validation methods, as small databases yield experienced interviewees – people who have been to several groups offer uncommonly sophisticated responses.

Eastern Europe is a challenge. Research companies have not had the chance to evolve, but have been made to learn everything at once, according to Ward. “Some markets, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, are quite sophisticated, but you need to do much more consultation with local agencies,” she says.

All the research companies interviewed by Marketing Week had long-standing international partners, whom they briefed in detail face to face. Their advice is that written briefs should be phrased in simple and unequivocal language, regardless of the sophistication of their audiences.

One of the main problems with international research is a lack of uniform methodology, and Author is a firm believer in the worth of central briefing sessions to allow input and agreement from all researchers. The New Solutions approach may involve all the researchers viewing the first group, while most companies send observers to oversee groups in different countries.

Regular contact should be maintained with local agencies, particularly less sophisticated Eastern European firms, says Ward. There should also be close involvement between the commissioning agency and its local partner when it comes to analysis. “It may be best to attend all groups in that region with a simultaneous translator, which will ensure the quality of material and could save a lot of time when you are producing the overview,” she says.

Ward believes it is always better to have country reports, which should include interpretation as well as analysis, written in the local language. “If you have the report translated here you can discuss its nuances with the translator. You should also discuss it with its originator to check that it captures the true sense of the findings,” she says.

Author advocates face-to-face group debriefings as a more effective way to synthesise the results of each country’s survey and to form coherent conclusions. “It makes sense to draw on their knowledge. It is an opportunity to interrogate the research, to bounce common threads around and see how it all fits,” he says. He also involves local partners in interactive sessions to present the findings to clients. It is much better to present the research in a stimulating and involving way, he says, than the traditional scenario where a “succession of people stand up and give the answers from their local jury as if they were casting votes at the Eurovision Song Contest”.

It seems unlikely that the annual attempt at unifying Europe through music will ever become as soph isticated as the market researchers who seek to understand the region’s consumers.

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