How brands can create global campaigns that cut across languages and cultures


With relentless scandal bringing Fifa to its knees and even tennis (tennis!) standing accused of corruption, it can only be hoped that the this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio will unite the world in the way that only global sporting events can.

The Olympics too has taken a credibility knock from the ongoing ‘doping in athletics’ scandal, but I have worked on several Games and experience tells me, that while athletics is a central pillar, they are about much more than just one sport.

A great Olympic marketing drive rises on the thermal of the excitement each Games generates. Make no mistake, planning for Rio campaigns started long ago, years in some cases.

But how can brands create truly global campaigns, capable of resonating across numerous languages and cultures?

It’s not all about words

If you look at successful brandsApple is an obvious one – they’ve got a look and feel as much as a language. A brand should have this together with a recognizable way of behaving. Most people can spot a Nike ad a mile off, as they could Red Bull work, simply because of the distinctive way they do things and the realms they inhabit.

Some brands attempt to do this by “owning” a color. Lots of brands try to own red, Santander, Vodafone and Coca-Cola, for example, and there are many more.

Of course, having a consistent color scheme matters but to be truly recognizable, the visual identity needs to be more sophisticated than just sticking with a particular shade. It should also give a sense of attitude and incorporate the brand’s way of behaving.

Think Ben & Jerry’s – its stance on sustainable sourcing, community-mindedness and progressive values are translated into everything it does. The brand’s reputation for “maverick ideas” resonates across its packaging and product names.

Consistent behavior has to be carried over into all aspects of the brand, not just ads or social media posts. Including utilities. I have HSBC “Premier” banking but does it ever feel “premier” when I am on the phone to them? Does it heck.

European airline EasyJet has done a great job of this; it has gone from being a cheap and not very cheerful airline (bad experiences almost guaranteed) of several years ago, to today, where everything about it, from the planes, to the website, to the app are all inspired by making things easy.

Nowadays, given that brands are making utilities, and with so much engagement happening via digital channels, it is vital that digital behavior also encapsulates the brand.

But – don’t be afraid of words

Having said all that, it does not mean that global campaigns have to be wordless, far from it.

The ad industry can get very stressed about words and how to adapt them but those of us who grew up in English-speaking countries often forget one major thing – everyone else is completely used to language alterations. If you’re German, for example, you’re totally accustomed to watching Star Warswith German voices dubbed over people speaking English, and Spain is the same. France, tends to subtitle rather than dub.

Generally, around the world, for millions and millions of people, it is the norm, they do not say, “Oh I’m not going to see Star Wars, it was filmed in English.” There’s no customer out there saying, “Don’t you [insert global brand name here]dare communicate to me using words!” That’s nonsense.

It just has to be done in the way any given country does it. It is not hard to find out which method is best for which region or country. Nor is it beyond the wit of man to check in the local markets that the words being used are appropriate there.

If Rolls Royce could manage to learn that that “Silver Mist” would translate in German as “Silver Shit” and therefore renamed the car “Silver Shadow” in the 1960s, with all the instant global communications at our fingertips today, it should be a breeze. Okay, it’s perhaps an apocryphal story but you get the point.

Furthermore, don’t assume that by not using words you’re playing safe. Just ask Coca-Cola who recently got in a terrific geopolitical mess over a festive map of Russia, which initially didn’t then did include the disputed region, Crimea, upsetting Russians and Ukrainians in equal measure.

Also – stop repeating yourself

While we are on the subject of words, sometimes it feels like brand personnel get issued a manual and, thereafter, repeat the same things over and over again. Once upon a time, that was called ‘branding’. However, some of the most interesting brands do not always say the same things to the same people in the same way.

Consider how different in tone and content the launches of the iPod and the iPad were. Or look at the range of content that Nike produces, everything from a solitary overweight boy running, to its star-filled Fifa World Cup epics.

There’s no inconsistency in having different approaches, in Nike’s case, the look and feel, the space it occupies, the position it takes, the attitude, all tell the viewer – this is a Nike spot.

It’s said that brands are houses and there are many doors through which people can enter. You shouldn’t just have one door. There are numerous ways into a brand, as long as it is fundamentally saying the same thing it doesn’t matter how it is said.

If you think about, it’s true of people too. The way they connect depends on the circumstances. I’d argue there is nothing wrong with that for brands, it makes them multi-dimensional. If you truly understand your brand’s purpose in the world, then, as seen with Nike, having a fat boy running can be just as inspirational as superstar soccer players.

Flexibility in tone is key to great Olympic-linked global campaigns. Several “TOP” tier partners, have been Olympic sponsors for many years e.g. Coca-Cola, since 1928, Visa (1986), McDonald’s (1976). It’s not a great idea to repeat the same things at Rio 2016 that you said at London 2012 and as you will say in Tokyo 2020 because each will have a different feel and a different style.

There’s no need to be afraid of being dynamic about how a brand expresses itself and it’s important to draw on some of the spirit of the specific host city.

In terms of creative executions, the best practitioners will have created a global concept that will lend itself to local variation and speedy tailoring as new stars emerge. The key to success is having a concept that everyone in the organization believes can be useful to them and is able to embrace. The fragmentation of media means there are a huge number of local opportunities that can be built around a global pillar, making for a powerful and exciting mix.

Bring it on, Rio

There really is nothing quite like a Olympic Games for bringing the world together in joyful competition and people of individual nations in support of their competitors. Marketing, in its own way, plays a key role in this, building emotion and excitement, elevating heroes and heroines. In today’s fractious global climate, an increase in unity is sorely needed.

Let’s hope for some great global campaigns that share the intoxicating, exuberant spirit of Rio with us all.

About Author

Guy Hayward

Global CEO of KBS

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