Emile Lee

Communicating Without Borders: How to Crush Your Global Campaign

By: Emile Lee | May 2, 2018 | 
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Communicating Without Borders: How to Crush Your Global CampaignDuring Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, a soldier was toiling under the hot sun when his shovel hit something unusual under the earth: a large basalt slab with writing on it.

He called his lieutenant over.

Word soon spread that they’d come across something profoundly significant.

That significant something was the Rosetta Stone.

And with that discovery, archaeologists were finally able to unlock the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphics for the modern world.

Avoiding Multicultural Mishaps

Just as Europeans in the 18th century struggled to translate Egyptian symbols into their native tongue, many of today’s communications pros struggle to convert their campaigns into those of international audiences.

In fact, cracking a global market might be even more challenging than decoding a lost writing system. At least those hieroglyphics were frozen in time.

In today’s business environment, trends can change overnight, and market preferences shift like sand.

Especially in an emerging market, an outdated or tone-deaf campaign can leave lasting stains on a brand’s image.

What’s more, multinational corporations have a habit of making top-down decisions without the input of local experts or customers on the ground.

Fortunately, you don’t have to dig around in the desert for a hidden cipher.

Instead, you can follow these principles to set your global campaign up for success.

Use Global Data and Insights to Inform Decisions

When planning a global campaign, you need global data. A survey, a focus group, or research solely done in the U.S. doesn’t count.

Our nation may be a melting pot, but that doesn’t mean it’s an accurate reflection of your target market abroad.

Consider how Mars, Inc. shaped its multicultural Snickers campaign.

You’ve seen the ads with Betty White, Joe Pesci, and the catchphrase, “You’re not you when you’re hungry.”

What you might not know is that White and Pesci were not in the Canadian version of the commercial. Or the U.K. version. Or the French, Indian, or Turkish versions.

Mars worked with each international market to identify the talent and scenario that would connect best with its local audience.

Through its research, Mars realized the medium matters as much as the message.

In the U.K., celebrity endorsers tweeted out-of-character statements before revealing that they “weren’t themselves” in a final tweet—a Twitter twist on the familiar TV ads.

In Puerto Rico, popular radio DJs played music their listeners weren’t used to hearing, such as classical music on a hip-hop station, before stating they needed a Snickers to get them back to normal.

The Mars global campaign had everything: global creative, resonant messaging, local celebrity endorsers, and creative media assets that audiences in each country could relate to.

For diligently designing its cross-border campaign, Mars earned a 16 percent uptick in global sales and a growth in market share in 56 of 58 countries where the campaign ran.

Treat the International Market Like a Local

The Snickers global campaign was successful because it balanced a universal message with creative direction from local media markets.

Everyone knows what it’s like to be ‘hangry.’

But beyond that basic message, Mars’ executives gave the reins to local leaders.

Chances are, if they’d forced an ivory-tower plan on their target markets, they wouldn’t have had nearly as much success.

Sometimes, even before a pre-planned campaign evolves, a company’s reputation precedes itself.

That was the case when I worked for an agency supporting British Telecom (BT) as it was pursuing expansion opportunities in markets across the Asia-Pacific region.

At the time, BT had a not-so-sunny reputation worldwide, seen by some as slow, conservative, and bureaucratic. In contrast, most regulators in the Asia-Pacific region were all about innovation.

To win the fixed-line and mobile licenses that BT sought, it had to change its perception across some local markets.

Our agency’s global campaign chose to focus on portraying BT as innovative, futuristic, and pioneering.

Working with the target countries before and during the global campaign, we sought to align with messaging and tactics.

Ultimately, BT won the contracts because it changed its image before knocking on doors.

Stay Culturally Educated and Aware

Many people have heard the ‘half joke, half urban legend’ about the Chevy Nova failing to sell in Mexico.

In Spanish, “no va” means “it doesn’t go.” Not great for a car name. In fact, this is a myth.

But it’s just the sort of translational snafu that inexperienced multicultural marketers and communicators make.

Another example, a Yellow Pages ad in the Toronto subway depicted a bowl of noodles and urged commuters to “Find out if Bi Bim Bap tastes as fun as it sounds.”

The problem?

For those of you who don’t eat bibimbap, know that having an illustration of noodles doesn’t jibe. “Bibimbap” literally means “mixed rice” in Korean.

That was an embarrassing mix-up.

But a Pringles display in the U.K. takes the cake for worst food ad blunder.

Under a message wishing Muslim customers a happy Ramadan, “smokey bacon flavor” chips were on sale, yet pork consumption is strictly forbidden in Islam.

Even in the fast-paced world of marketing, social media, and 24/7 news cycles, there are no excuses for mistakes you can avoid with a simple Google search.

Any messaging or creative content intended for other cultures or languages should be researched, checked, and rechecked before delivering to the target market.

Everyone On the Same Page

So far, we’ve focused on what marketing and communications professionals can do to avoid problems and thrive in global markets.

But communication is a two-way street.

Information from overseas branches might be as important for a home base as anything sent in the other direction.

While working for a Silicon Valley startup in the Asia-Pacific region, I began to notice a disconnect from the Stateside headquarters.

Our job in Asia was first to define which market and business challenge our solution could solve and then explain how our company was the industry leader.

From there, we were to develop the market and raise brand awareness in countries around the region.

We were getting traction, and everything looked good from the top. But things in America changed.

The market segment we were focusing on started to lose luster, and our company was losing out to a competitor.

Leadership told us to shift messaging away from this market segment to something entirely different. We pushed back.

Things were going well in our region, and we knew changing messaging now would only confuse customers in our market. But HQ didn’t listen.

Sadly, regional business shriveled until we were forced to call it quits.

I was one of the team members who stuck around to turn off the lights for the business in that part of the world.

A Global Campaign is Akin to an Archaeological Find

A great global campaign is like an archaeological find: it’s rare and requires a massive amount of research, hard labor, and perhaps a little luck to discover.

But when found, it allows a new group of people to connect your brand with its own culture for the first time.

So don’t stop digging.

Remember, a successful global campaign takes more time, research, and collaboration than one designed for a single market.

Keep at it, and you just might strike gold.

About Emile Lee


I am a senior vice president and the global head of communications at Dun & Bradstreet, a global leader in commercial data, analytics, and insights for businesses.

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