Mind your language

As advertising becomes increasingly globalised, so too do ad campaigns. However, cultural and linguistic differences mean that what works in one country may not necessarily work in another. By Martin Croft

George Bernard Shaw once said that the United States of America and Great Britain were two countries “divided by a common tongue”.

Even today, the truth behind his witticism is made obvious on our TV screens and in our newspapers and magazines. American companies run US ads unchanged in the UK, in the mistaken assumption that, because we all speak the same language, what works for the US market must work for the UK one. The problem is that while the words may be the same, what they mean can be completely different – and that is without taking into account differences in tone of voice or unfamiliar cultural references.

For example, Kimberly-Clark has run a promotion for Huggies nappies in the first issue of new dad’s mag, FQ: unfortunately, the references to Homer Simpson and Tony Blair sit awkwardly alongside references to an unfamiliar American TV sit-com character. And while the reference to a high-fashion London handbag designer might have worked for a female audience, it does not have the same impact on men.

If it’s possible to get things so wrong when you’re dealing with the same language, the potential for disaster when dealing with two or more languages is much greater. With the world rapidly shrinking – for marketers, at least – and the growing trend for monolithic cross-border brands, the issue of how a brand’s marketing communications should be translated into different languages becomes paramount.

The written word is a powerful tool for communicating core brand values – arguably more so than pictures or iconography – but how can marketers be sure that audiences in different countries, speaking different languages, are getting the same messages?

In some industries, it may be possible to get away with using a brand’s native tongue around the world. Computer products and services marketers, for example, can safely assume that their target market is fluent in English, while the post-MTV generation seems to communicate solely in text (or rather, txt), a language all of their own, no matter where they might live.

Parlez-vous francais?

And, of course, luxury goods companies, particularly perfumes, can get away with using French, because whether or not the target audience speaks it is irrelevant – everyone knows French is the language of’amour.

But consumers are increasingly asserting their right to be spoken to in their own language. And marketers need to recognise that while their products may be global brands, it can’t hurt for them to learn to speak like a native. Even those companies which have invested heavily in the internet are discovering they can no longer assume that an online audience only wants to communicate in English.

There is, however, a major difference between getting your copy translated into another language, and speaking like a native. Many experts on cross-border marketing argue that “translation” is actually the wrong approach.

Adapt or be damned

Tim Solomon, a managing partner at Ogilvy & Mather’s London office, says: “When you have an ad which has been written in one language and you want to use it in other countries, you must avoid the idea of ‘translation’ at all costs – it must be adaptation.”

Judith Harris, international director of multilingual copy adaptation agency Ursula Grüber Communication Internationale, says it is vital that whoever is adapting copy for use in another country must be a copywriter.

“Translators are trained to translate, but they rarely have advertising agency experience or real copywriting credentials. Central project management, handled by a multilingual, multicultural team with excellent advertising experience, can ensure that the major creative elements of the campaign, such as headline, strapline and captions, have been adapted in a way that preserves the impact of the original. If necessary, ask for a back-translation in English and an explanation of any important nuances in the target languages.”

Michael Collins, managing director of specialist marketing translation company World Writers, agrees with this argument: “Translation doesn’t work. People can instinctively feel when something wasn’t originally written for them.” And, as Steve Parish, chief executive of TAG Worldwide, the international ad production company that owns World Writers, points out, the physical layout of an ad may not allow for direct translation: “The language may be adapted properly, but the ad still needs to be set properly. You have to look at the typography too.”

Talk like an Egyptian

Simon Anholt, founder and former managing director of World Writers, is now a consultant to international companies and the author of Another One Bites the Grass – Making Sense of International Advertising, published by John Wiley & Sons, New York. Anholt says: “Time and time again, I see clients and their agencies fall into the trap of believing that a British or American team can create an ad in the English language, and turn that into an Egyptian or Thai or Guatemalan ad simply by translating the English words into Arabic or Thai or Spanish. You put it like that, and it seems obvious that it’s not a very intelligent way to behave. Yet look at the way people create international campaigns, and it’s clear that most of the time they’re behaving exactly as if they believed that the only difference between an English or American consumer and an Egyptian consumer is that one speaks English and the other speaks Arabic.”

Anholt continues: “I don’t see too many signs that this approach has changed over the years: every day, somewhere in the world, worryingly junior people working on major global briefs in major global agencies are still treating the creative part of their international campaigns as nothing much more demanding than finding the cheapest translation company in the Yellow Pages.”

Rory Sutherland, executive creative director at OgilvyOne, O&M’s sister integrated agency, observes that even where countries speak the same language, you may need to make changes to advertising copy because “sometimes the tone of voice doesn’t sit right” – so even marketers from the US, Australia or other English-speaking nations would have to have their ads adapted for the UK, because, Sutherland says, “there will be obvious differences in tonality or cultural references which could jar with an English audience.”

Unfortunately, as James Bradley, an account handler with translation agency Mother Tongue, admits, “clients who understand the nuances of translation are the exception rather than the rule. Most ad agencies think that once they’ve got client sign-off, they can get the ads translated from English – the good ones bring us in while they’re working up the creative approach.”

Ad agencies also need to start thinking about how potential executions will work in different markets before they get too locked in to one approach. Laurence Grinter, creative director of online at direct marketing specialist TDA, speaks for many experts when he says: “You can’t rely on alliteration, you can’t use colloquialisms, you can’t use idioms – and humour doesn’t translate well.” Grinter also points out that while adapting an English creative solution to work in France or Germany has its challenges, “it’s when you try to use the same creative work in different continents that you really have problems.”

One world, many problems

The idea of buying local copywriting expertise for every market you want to sell your product in may not sit well with the accountants, who are increasingly holding the reins when it comes to marketing spend. The push to create global brands is a cost-driven one, and finance directors would undoubtedly prefer a world where everyone spoke the same language and reacted the same way to the same stimuli, and where only one pack and one creative advertising execution would be necessary.

The world isn’t like that, though, and too much homogenisation in packaging and marketing communications risks losing customers. Rob Gray, managing director of integrated agency Mercier Gray, which has an office in Dubai, says marketers must “estimate whether the costs of tailoring messages will outweigh the potential damage to the brand. And in the current economic climate, how many brands can afford to risk this?”

As World Writers’ Collins says: “You cannot compromise on quality for the sake of saving money. It’s always going to be media buying that’s the big investment, and if you run with an execution that doesn’t work in different territories, you’re throwing your media budget away. You have to talk to consumers in the language they dream in.”

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