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How to best run an international advertising campaign

How to best run an international advertising campaign

By Nick Strauss, planning director, Soho Square.

We have all heard stories of international ad campaigns that failed. It’s not just about badly dubbed ads (although there are plenty of those) but about campaigns that fall flat in a foreign market because of what might be termed ‘cultural failings’ – because the execution at the heart of the ad – whether a slogan or a visual identity – simply doesn’t translate.

So what are the main pitfalls you might encounter when working on an international campaign – and how can you avoid them?


1. Attitudes

It’s no surprise to say that attitudes differ from country to country. What can be surprising is just how much they can alter, and the areas where attitudes really matter.
Some of the more obvious attitudinal differences are to do with attitudes to women, beauty and gender, which unsurprisingly, vary wildly across countries and continents. But more difficult to gauge are the differing attitudes to issues such as displaying wealth and to raising children.

At Soho Square, we once ran an ad for a huge international financial brand that talked about saving money for the next generation. In the UK, we showed a parent protecting a small baby. But in some Asian countries, we had to change the ad to show a parent empowering a child by teaching them, simply because the more passive ad would not be appropriate there and would not have resonated with parents.

Even in countries that are relatively close neighbours either in geography or attitude, big differences prevail. French underwear brand Dim can quite confidently show men and women together in an ad for skimpy underwear – in Britain, we rarely see both sexes together in these ads, and in the US, this sort of advert would almost certainly not be tolerated.

2. Behaviour

In the UK, we like to drink our coffee from large mugs and brew our tea in a pot. In France, chocolate and coffee are the breakfast drinks of choice. Some things are obvious. But in the US, something approaching 20 per cent of meals are eaten in the car. In France, eating in the car is certainly not the done thing  – and it is even more taboo in Japan, where you wouldn’t show a person eating on the street unless you were being deliberately provocative.

3. Language

Language and its associated pitfalls usually crop up in the area of taglines or even product names (not something that always falls within an advertising remit). People go wrong when they take a single global line and use brute force to adapt it to different languages in which sometimes the words might have a different meaning – or no meaning at all.

There are many famous and apocryphal examples – in the 1980s, Coke used the tagline ‘Coke is it’ – a great catchy slogan but it doesn’t work in French, where it translates as “Coca Cola c’est ca” – the words exist, but the slogan is meaningless.  In France you can use English slogans, but must provide a translation elsewhere in the ad – so any global campaign slogans will have to work in multiple languages.

4. Aesthetics and media

The media landscape differs enormously from one culture to the next and that affects how viewers process ads. Let’s take the example of TV (although we could just as easily look at commercial radio or the rules of DM engagement). Some cultures have a very ‘interruptive’ tradition in TV advertising – in the US and Italy, ad breaks pop up every 5-10 minutes, often at crucial parts of the storyline.

This makes them unavoidable and means they have a much more ‘hard sell’ aesthetic. Consumers have to watch the ads if they want to watch TV, so the ads don’t have an imperative to be persuasive or beautiful. They just need to get a practical message across in a short space of time.

France has fewer ad breaks, but they are often longer and therefore more avoidable. So to persuade people not to get up and make a coffee or ring a friend, the ads need to be much more aesthetically pleasing and thought-provoking. France even has TV shows about its own advertising that people will watch because they are so fond of their ads.

Britain is somewhere in the middle of these two models. However, ad breaks are, on the whole, becoming more frequent and we are moving towards a more interruptive model.


The key to avoiding all of these problems is to start with an idea rather than any sort of execution – one that can be adapted and appropriate ads created within the culture of each country. The key is not translation, but transcreation – taking a single idea and creating ads based on that which are appropriate for each market.

Specialist agencies with international experts are a great help here – whether a larger network agency with these services available internally, or international specialist agencies with researchers and experts in making sure ads are sensitive and appropriate.

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