Another One Bites the Grass: Making Sense of International Advertising

Another One Bites the Grass: Making Sense of International Advertising

by Simon Anholt


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Another One Bites the Grass: Making Sense of International Advertising by Simon Anholt

Another One Bites the Grass "An inspiring, thought-provoking perspective on creating effective and sustainable international advertising." —Charles Lanphear, Global Media Director H.J. Heinz Company "At last, here's a really intelligent new approach to the age-old problem of making great international ads. A must-read for everyone in the business of global brands, global marketing, and global communications." —Robert Hancock, Director of Communications Pillsbury UK Ltd. "In an irreverent, finely argued, and entertaining assault on conventional wisdom, drawing on his considerable experience of working in the business, the author proposes thought-provoking new ways to survive and prosper in the international advertising jungle." —Adrian Vickers. Founder/Partner Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780471354888
Publisher: Wiley
Publication date: 01/28/2000
Series: Adweek Series
Pages: 326
Product dimensions: 6.28(w) x 9.29(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

SIMON ANHOLT is the founder and Chairman of World Writers Ltd., an advertising consultancy that provides international creative and strategic services to other advertising agencies as well as directly to clients such as DuPont, Time-Warner. Sara Lee, Sony Corporation, and IBM.

Read an Excerpt

The Trouble with Words

Once upon a time, there was an airline which decided to run a special promotion on its busy route between Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and London, England. Aware that here was rich potential for linguistic disaster, the marketing department decided to play safe and have their London agency devise a simple poster in English, which could then be safely translated into Arabic.

"Fly to London this Autumn," ran the line, "and save up to 20% on the normal return fare."

The posters were made, the campaign ran, and the promotion was a huge success. Such a success, in fact, that the following month, the people in the Saudi office decided to throw a party for their English colleagues.

At the party, the marketing manager for the Middle East drew aside his English colleague and said, "I'd just like to thank you for the excellent poster you created for us. I'm certain that it was the main reason for the wonderful success we've had. That famous English creativity! I've been saying it for years. We need a bit more of that over here!"

The Director of Marketing was flattered, and thanked his colleague, but the man carried on: "It was so unexpected, so . . . off the wall, so zany. I just don't know how you people keep coming up with these ideas."

The Director of Marketing began to feel confused: "Well, you know, we weren't even trying to be especially creative on that ad-- you should see what we can do when we really pull out all the stops!"

But his Saudi colleague just replied, "Ah, the famous British modesty! No, in my book, it was genius. Especially the bit about the restaurant."

The Director of Marketing made an excuse, hurriedly left the party, and found somebody to translate the poster back into English for him. What it said was as follows:

"Fly to London this Autumn and save up to 20% on the normal return fare. AND while you're there, don't forget to eat at Ahmed's famous Kebab Oasis at 526 Edgware Road, where you will be treated like a prince."

Ahmed, it turned out, much, much later, was the translator's brother-in-law. He now owns two Kebab Oases on the Edgware Road.


That story always goes down rather well when I tell it, I suspect because it plays so unerringly on the deepest fears of many international marketers: when you're responsible for communications in a language you don't personally speak, you believe that you know what you're running. But actually, it could be saying literally anything at all, and you just wouldn't know.

This fear is symptomatic of a very common but fundamental misunderstanding about the function of language in advertising, often characterized by an unshakeable conviction that language is a secret key for resolving every imaginable problem in international marketing communications.

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.

A strange attitude indeed, especially since it is constantly confirmed and reinforced by the practices of global ad agencies-- companies which style themselves as strategically-minded international communications consultancies. But there you go, and I don't see too many signs that this approach has changed over the years: every day, somewhere in the world, scarily 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.

If you'd like to prove for yourself that this is really not a language issue, just cut a press ad out of a British or Australian magazine and paste it into an American one (or vice versa). See? It looks totally out of place, and that's nothing to do with the fact that Brits spell "color" wrong. The whole ad actually feels wrong: it's designed, laid out, typeset, photographed, targeted, argued, written, conceived in a way which is totally alien to the American consumer. It sort of smells wrong. It has the wrong pheromones.

Consumers are, alas, not stupid: they have uncannily sensitive cultural antennae, and can detect an ad which was never really meant for them in the first place from about a hundred yards downwind.


You don't need to work in international advertising for very long before you notice that translation is something which people lie awake at night worrying about a great deal. And, in my experience, very few of them have even the remotest idea what it actually is, and how singularly irrelevant it is to the whole business of creating international advertising campaigns.

Read any textbook on export marketing, overseas trade, global branding, or international advertising, and look up "translation" in the index. There is usually a short paragraph or modest section dedicated to it, in which the author shares with us some profound findings, gleaned over decades in the business, about this mysterious topic. Here's a fine example from one weighty tome, which is otherwise an extremely authoritative guide to the practical issues of export marketing:

Translation is made easier if advertisements, sales letters, mail-drop leaflets and so on are drafted in simple English. It follows that colloquialisms, figures of speech, metaphors, technical terms, and humorous expressions should always be avoided. The people who put together the initial copy should attempt to think in a multilingual way, assuming from the beginning that the material will be translated. Short and simple sentences are preferable to complex statements.

Leaving aside for a moment the fascinating philosophical quandary of how a monolingual person can think in a multilingual way, let me précis the author's advice: the best advertising for any overseas market is the literal translation of a basic, formal, bookish, expressionless, non-technical, and humorless English text.

Presumably, the author is not recommending that we adopt the same techniques for developing domestic advertising.

From another book: "Always make sure you have a native speaker check over the translations before you publish them"; "always make sure your translator is properly qualified" is another such gem from an equally respected source.

What are these people talking about, I wonder?

Translating advertising copy is like painting the tip of an iceberg and hoping the whole thing will turn red: what makes copy work is not the words themselves, but subtle combinations of those words, and most of all the echoes and repercussions of those words within the mind of the reader. These are precisely the subtleties which translation fails to convey. Advertising is not made of words, but made of culture.

Translating copy is like boiling lettuce. No matter how carefully you do it, the result is always disappointing. And you can call it what you like-- I hear people using words like adaptation, transcreation, transculturation, transliteration, even the spectacularly inelegant transadaptation-- just as you can poach, scald, sear, or steam your lettuce, but it's still a culinary felony and it's still not going to make anyone's mouth water.

Translating copy is like picking fruit from one tree and trying to glue it onto the branches of another. The fruit will wither and eventually rot, and anyway, even if a miracle happened and you could find a way of grafting the living fruit onto the branches, the fruit would still be growing on the wrong tree, and nobody in their right mind would want to pick it and eat it.

Translation is like washing your socks on the wrong program-- somehow, when they come out at the end of the cycle, the colors are fainter, they don't really fit you any more, and you might as well just throw them away and buy a new pair.

Enough silly metaphors. It's easy enough to show how little translation actually achieves. Take even the simplest, most basic of concepts: a cup of coffee. Surely, you might think, this can be simply translated from one language to another-- after all, it's not a subtle piece of sophisticated creative writing. A dictionary will confirm that "a cup of coffee" can be directly translated into its precise equivalent in any language on the planet-- for example, "una tazza di caffè" in Italian. What could be simpler?

Nothing, except that it's not the same thing at all: "a cup of coffee," if you're British, means a half-pint mug filled with equal quantities of lukewarm dishwater, instant coffee granules, and sugar.

"Una tazza di caffè" is a different thing altogether: a tiny cup with a couple of spoonfuls of espresso-- it's taken at different times, for different reasons, it tastes and smells different, and it's marketed differently.

(Actually, una tazza di caffè is something which Italians seldom say in normal speech: coffee exists quite happily outside its container in the Italian language, and a more natural translation of "a cup of coffee" would be "un caffè": in other words, "a coffee," which in turn would sound slightly unnatural if we said it in British English. The reason it's more likely to be heard in American English is probably connected with the strong influence of Italian and other European languages on American speech.)

The things you're actually saying are made of culture: words are just the way you say them, and fixing the language without fixing the culture is a very dangerous game to play-- it's merely scratching the surface of a very deep mystery.

In fact, as people continue to beat their heads against the brick wall of translation, perhaps the most serious danger is that they will actually succeed. In the unlikely event of somebody finally managing to achieve the "perfect translation" of a piece of advertising, they might well find themselves in far deeper water than they expect, because of the expectations this degree of linguistic competence will raise in the mind of the reader.

Let me explain. If you get both your language and your cultural references wrong, people may well forgive you, because you sound like a foreigner, so they're not surprised if you say things which are kind of foreign too. But if you learn to speak like a local yet are still uttering foreign sentiments, you run a far greater danger: you may well kill your brand's chances in that country for years to come. Saying the wrong things in the right language is simply making it easier for consumers to understand how little you understand them.


But perhaps ignorance on this difficult subject is understandable. Most people's formative experience of foreign languages was failing to learn one at school, where their sentences came back to them marked in red pencil as Right or Wrong. This was apparently because Spanish and German and other foreign languages had something called grammar, which of course most native speakers believe that English doesn't have. These other languages also had literally thousands of things called verbs, which were so difficult to remember that even foreigners didn't always get them right.

They naturally ended up with the idea that foreign copy and English copy are fundamentally different things. Writing a piece of copy in English is a creative issue: there are thousands of ways of doing it, it's subtle and complex, and only trained copywriters have the necessary talent and experience. But when it gets translated for another market, it gets relegated from the creative department to the production department-- and suddenly it's either right or wrong.

So when faced with the need to convert text into another language, people tend to believe that the safest thing to do is ask the translator to change the words as little as possible, and stick to a precise, correct translation. After all, the original copy works. Why change it?

This is in fact the most dangerous thing you can do. In the minefield of foreign languages and cultures, there is one certainty: sticking closely to the original text can only make things worse. But for people who don't know any languages, this is like telling them that the only way out of that minefield is by avoiding the path: it's neither helpful nor reassuring. The reality is that advertising copy can never and should never be translated. This is surely one of the most important facts to learn when planning an international campaign: advertising copy can only be written.


In any case, the people who do translation for a living are usually academic linguists, and know nothing about the art of persuasion or the science of marketing. Quite apart from the fact that merely translating the words of an advertisement is ignoring its marketing function and consequently depriving it of its power to actually achieve anything, it almost certainly won't even sound like an ad either.

Asking translators to produce advertising copy, "because they do words," is like Pope Julius II going to his local firm of builders and asking them to decorate the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, "because they do paint." It's all very well for him to suggest they use some nice bright colors, go easy on the whitewash, perhaps put in a couple of scenes featuring the creation of man, the last supper, stuff like that, but it doesn't alter the fact that he's basically giving the brief to the wrong people.

Translation, no matter how carefully or competently it's done, and even when it's done by copywriters and called fancy names, simply never sounds like free writing: it always rings slightly false, it has a faint odor of foreignness about it which is anathema to successful selling and brand-building. Translated copy is copy with all its vital strengths removed: its slickness, self-confidence, dynamism, internal rhythm, intimacy, fluency, and persuasiveness. It has lost its sense of purpose, which is practically the only thing which will make people read it.

Translation is something you do when a valuable text needs to be made accessible to speakers of another language, and it is a process which aims above all to respect the sanctity of that original text: so poets translate poetry and novelists translate novels, but when translating, their first duty is to preserve as far as possible the integrity of the original author's words.

But advertising, unlike literature, is a primarily functional form: it has a definite commercial purpose, which is to communicate brand values and sell products. So attempting to preserve the text that was used to achieve this function in one culture defeats the point of the exercise: the point is to re-enact the function, not reproduce the form.

Unlike translation, copywriting is quite an easy thing to do: or rather, if you're any good at it at all, that's because it comes easily to you. You have a brief and a blank sheet of paper in front of you, and the freedom to express yourself as you wish. Once you've cracked the basic concept, you've pictured your target properly and you're familiar with the product, you just do the thing which comes most naturally to you, and write.

But if the piece of blank paper is replaced by the completed work of another copywriter, especially if it's written in another language, it messes with your mental processes in the most extraordinary way. You start to write things you wouldn't normally write. You find yourself constructing sentences in a strange and unfamiliar manner, just to accommodate the different thought patterns of another writer. It takes far longer to finish. You find yourself agonizing over how you would have expressed something which somebody else has expressed but which, in all probability, you would never have expressed at all if you'd had the choice. Naturally, you can change that thought or eliminate it altogether, but by this point all your fluidity and confidence and surefootedness-- fragile qualities at the best of times-- have abandoned you.

And if it's that hard to write, you can be sure it'll be hard to listen to or read. It'll sound like what it is: something cobbled together by a committee, and, for the reader or listener, a very bumpy ride indeed. The end result is that most consumers will sample the first sentence, register that there is no single, clear, authoritative voice addressing them here, and turn the page or flip the channel.

Advertising works when consumers believe they are being spoken to by somebody who understands them. Somebody who knows their needs, and talks and feels just as they do. Not a foreigner speaking to them with a phrase-book in front of his or her face.


And of course there's more to the matter than just culture and style: advertising is so intimately linked with the social fabric, the laws, the advertising conventions, the buying habits, the aspirations, the sense of decency, the sense of humor, the mentality of a people, that without the weapon of free writing, creating advertisements becomes a doomed task.

There's an obvious point which is often overlooked by less experienced exporters and agencies, too: your brand's market position may well be different, whether you like it or not. A product may be brand leader in the States but unknown in Denmark. It may be unique in New Zealand but a me-too brand in Germany. It may appeal to a social group in Britain which simply doesn't exist in Peru. It will certainly be a domestic product in its country of origin and a foreign product everywhere else.

All these conditions inevitably dictate important differences in the way the advertising message is structured and expressed-- just as they should form a key part of your entry strategy for that market, so your advertising communications should be given total liberty to cater for them. To allow this leeway for appropriate expression is nothing more than simple pragmatism; when planned for in advance, with proper analysis of the culture of the market, it is elevated to the level of strategy; to fail to allow for it is to perpetuate and amplify the error of the "naïve rule" of exporting.

The only way to produce effective, distinctive and creative copy for any market is to brief a skilled copywriter from that market to write the thing from brief in his or her own language, ideally with no reference whatsoever to existing copy in other languages.

This doesn't mean that the work needs to be fundamentally different in each market, or that there's no such thing as a coherent and consistent international campaign. On the contrary, international campaigns can work very well-- indeed, as we shall see, they can work in ways which are far more powerful than campaigns which don't face the challenge of a transcultural journey-- but what makes them successfully and intelligently coherent is adhering to a consistent idea whilst writing in a consistent tone from a consistent brief in order to present a consistent brand image, rather than clinging slavishly to one culture-specific form of words.

The words inevitably change, and it doesn't matter: they are merely an executional detail. Having the courage to let go of the words concentrates the mind wonderfully on the crucial question of what we actually want to say about the product, rather than wasting our time fretting about how to say it in languages we don't speak. And finally, the reality is that people tend to read less and less, especially in mass-media consumer environments, and in the couple of milliseconds of his or her precious time which the average consumer is prepared to consecrate to the average ad, there simply isn't time to start delving into a mountain of words. If the bulk of the message isn't communicated visually, there's precious little chance it will get through, so agonizing over the correctness of the words rather than the correctness of the visual and cultural language shows fundamentally misplaced priorities (and a good deal of wishful thinking besides).


If you're responsible for what a piece of copy is saying, but unfortunately you don't know what it means because it's written in a language you don't understand, it's perfectly natural for you to try to find out. At first glance, it may sound as if a backtranslation is exactly what you need.

Phil Ray, the British copywriter, once told me a story about backtranslations which, I think, proves the riskiness of this assumption rather well.

In India, several hundred different languages and dialects are spoken, so any national campaign has to appear in quite a number of them. Whilst working in India, Phil once wrote an ad in English for Horlicks, a bedtime malted milk drink, and it was based around the idea that during the night, you get very hungry, except that because you're asleep, you don't know about it. Horlicks dubbed this perilous condition night starvation. Obviously, with such a powerful marketing idea, you hardly need to worry about creative trickery in the copy, so the headline simply read Horlicks prevents night starvation.

The ad was duly sent off to be translated into Urdu, Hindi, Tamil, Gujerati, and all the rest of them. Since he didn't know any of these languages, and he was anxious that the thought had been properly expressed, Phil thought it would be a good idea to get some other speakers of these languages to backtranslate the copy into English. Most of them came back with a rendition which more or less approximated to Horlicks prevents night starvation, apart from the Tamil, which read twenty men asleep under a tree.

If you're expecting me to explain how this happened, forget it. Even if I knew, which I don't, it would probably take six pages. But the point is a very simple one: there are usually at least fifteen or twenty different ways in which you can translate a simple sentence from one language into another, depending on your precise reading of the sentence, the shades of emphasis you give to each part of the concept, the tone of voice you use, the type of language, the linguistic style, the degree of grammatical correctness, the level of prolixity or brevity, the choice of simplicity or sophistication, and so forth. And with languages as different as English and Tamil, many of the concepts themselves may be entirely untransferable except in the most approximate way.

And once this is done, translating it back into the original language involves just as many choices all over again, so the total number of possible variations probably ends up in the thousands.

Which is just another way of saying that although backtranslation looks like a sensible precaution to take, and a relatively simple way of checking that nothing awful has happened to your copy, it really doesn't help too much. At best, it can merely tell you what each sentence says, not how or why, and these are considerations which, in creative writing, are often far more important. It may save you the trouble of looking up each word in the dictionary, but is absolutely no substitute for understanding the language and seeing the copy in the context of its new target culture.

Once you start getting into the process of "checking" foreign work, things can quickly get out of control. Some people go to quite extraordinary lengths in their attempts to make the whole translation process less opaque to the monolingual, and end up making it literally impenetrable: consider, if you will, the following excerpt from that excellent book, Marketing across Cultures, by Jean-Claude Usunier:

The back-translation technique (Campbell & Werner, 1970) is the most widely employed method of reaching translation equivalence (mainly lexical and idiomatic) in cross-cultural research. This procedure helps to identify probable translation errors. One translator translates from the source-language into a target language. Then another translator, ignorant of the source language text, translates the first translator's target language text back into the source language. The two source-language versions are compared ... Parallel and back-translation can be merged ... When the two languages and cultures present wide variations, such as Korean and French, combining parallel and back-translation provides a higher level of equivalence (Marchetti and Usunier, 1990). For example (Usunier, 1991), two Koreans translate the same French questionnaire F into two Korean versions, K1 and K2. A third Korean translator, who is unfamiliar with the original French text F, translates K1 and K2 into F1 and F2. A final Korean questionnaire K3, is then prepared by comparing the two back-translated French versions, F1 and F2. English is used to help compare them, as it is widely used and more precise than either French or Korean. This example could be refined: the number of parallel translations may be increased, or back translation processes may be independently performed. A more sophisticated solution to the problem of translation has been suggested by Campbell and Werner (1970). Research instruments should be developed by collaborators in two cultures, and items, questions or other survey materials should be generated jointly in the two cultures. After back-translation, or after any initial translation process has been performed, there is an opportunity to change the source-language wording. This technique, called decentering, not only changes the target language, as in the previous techniques, but also allows the words in the source language to be changed, if this provides enhanced accuracy. The ultimate words and phrases employed will depend on which common/similar meaning is sought in both languages simultaneously, without regard to whether words and phrases originate in the source or the target languages. . . . In any case, it remains absolutely necessary to pretest the translated research instrument in the target culture until satisfactory levels of reliability on conceptual and measurement equivalences are attained.

I rest my case. Even though, to be fair, the above passage relates to research questionnaires (where translation is arguably an unavoidable part of the process), rather than creative work, it graphically and scarily demonstrates the importance of avoiding translation like the plague, for, as Shakespeare put it, "that way madness lies."


The reality is that even if you know another language well, you only actually "touch" your mother tongue. I speak French and Italian fluently, sometimes well enough to be able to convince French and Italian people that I'm French or Italian too (at least for the first half of the evening), yet I'm always conscious when speaking or reading or especially writing those languages that I am dealing in a currency which can never be entirely my own. I feel like one of those scientists manipulating radioactive materials with asbestos gloves through a little brick wall: you can get extremely nimble at using the equipment, but the stuff you're handling is forever, frustratingly, on the other side of the wall.

Yes, there is something called bilingualism, which is rather different from extreme fluency. I have learned my other languages, whereas a truly bilingual person is brought up speaking more than one-- usually because each parent has a different mother tongue. Yet even in these cases, unless the child spends equal amounts of time living in each country, has equal numbers of friends from each country, is educated for equal periods (ideally at each stage of her education) in both countries, and loves her mummy and daddy to the same degree (yes, this is crucial too, as the language of the less preferred parent may suffer a degree of subconscious rejection), then one language or another will always be slightly more "native" than the other.

Personally, when hiring creatives and especially copy-writers, I avoid true bilinguals like the plague. The result of their perfectly split cultural and linguistic mechanisms often means that they have slightly less than 100% mastery of both, and they come over as being ever so slightly foreign whichever language they're speaking or writing. Fortunately for them, the human brain has ample capacity for multiple languages, so bilingual people are far more than 50% fluent in each, but their allegiances are quite definitely divided.


When I speak at conferences on international advertising and marketing topics, I've often noticed an interesting phenomenon. It seems that whenever thinking people foregather and talk about these things, they always feel impelled to tell frightful stories about things going wrong.

Trouble is, they're always the same stories. If I had a dollar for every time I'd heard that story about how "Come alive with Pepsi" (or was it "The choice of a new generation"?) turned out meaning "Brings your ancestors back from the dead" in Chinese, why, by now I'd have about $27.

And it's such a half-witted story, anyway. The person who did the translation was obviously either a complete idiot or else working undercover for Coke. I mean, if he was sufficiently sentient to understand his own language, how come he didn't notice what he'd just written?

The same applies to Disaster Story 327b (It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken / it takes an aroused man to make a chicken happy); 228 (The ideal ink to prevent embarrassment / the ideal ink to prevent pregnancy); 138 (It's finger-licking good / so good it makes you want to eat your fingers); 124a (Body by Fisher / Corpse by Fisher); and on, and on, and on.

By the way, the numbers are catalog references from my vast private collection of disaster stories: I hear so many of them, I began collecting them years ago, much against my better judgement. I collect them with the same gloomy fascination as a burglar collects antique handcuffs.

I don't want to seem humorless, and I really do understand the attraction of disaster stories: to prove it, I'm putting one at the beginning of every chapter of this book, as a kind of memento mori, rather as Victorian scholars would place a skull on their desk lest they forget their own mortality. I frequently succumb to the temptation to tell them at conferences, too: but for me, the really interesting ones are those which prove that culture is actually more dangerous than language, and those are the ones I've chosen as chapter-headings.

These are the stories from which we can learn something, rather than fruitlessly quiver in our boots lest the same thing happen to us: they teach us valuable lessons about the real, profound challenges of international communications, rather than simply reiterating the empty truism that translation is a minefield.


It is interesting, though, that we all feel the need to tell each other these dreadful tales. It seems that there's no shortage of writers and conference speakers who are happy to tell you what not to do in international advertising, but very little advice that's actually any use.

I suppose it's because the emotion most commonly associated with performing acts of international commerce is fear: fear of the unknown. And the most frightening aspect of international commerce is almost certainly language.

There can be few things more alarming than being faced with another human being with whom one cannot communicate: not speaking a common language is like being suddenly struck deaf and dumb. And written communication is scarcely any better: someone hands you a sheet of paper covered in strange characters, and when you send it off to the relevant local office to have it translated, you're not even sure if you're feeding it backwards into the fax machine.

Some people mind this more than others, it has to be said. I often find that the people who are most highly-rated as international business practitioners are simply the ones with the thickest skins-- they've often acquired their reputation because they've learned how to "deal with foreigners." Their behavior is characterized by a boisterous refusal to admit that national differences are anything more than political machinations on the part of disaffected country managers who weren't smart enough to land a proper job at headquarters.

These hardened cases get things done because they ride roughshod over other people's cultures. In a just world, they would be incarcerated in windowless rooms until they had read and taken extensive notes on the entire works of Geert Hofstede and Fons Trompenaars (two writers I shall mention again in the next chapter).

This global superiority complex--" I must be right because I'm the only one here who's not foreign"-- is more commonly found amongst citizens of nations that have, or have had, global influence: Britain, France, and America are examples which spring readily to mind.

The British disease is imperial cockiness gone way past its sell-by date-- a thick, ugly crust of superiority incompletely masking a howling, burning nugget of abject inferiority. It's the fatal combination of ignorance and arrogance: we think we know everything, and so will never learn anything.

Personally, for as long as I can remember, I've always experienced the most agonizing cocktail of humiliation, fear, and embarrassment when I travel to countries where I don't speak the language. The fact that my mother tongue, English, is so often egregiously well spoken in so many of these countries only adds to my sense of shame. But I'm probably just weird.

This sudden inability to communicate strikes at the very heart of our self-confidence, our ability to do business, our ability to do anything at all except gesture hunger, tiredness, thirst. It has the power to reduce your average Senior Vice-President of Global Marketing, who back home in the States could eat six brand managers before breakfast, to the level of a helpless babe-- depending on the thickness of his or her skin, of course. No wonder so much international business gets delegated to junior people.

The reference to the Senior Vice-President of Global Marketing is not a casual one. I refer to an unforgettable episode from my agency days, which took place when I was traveling around Europe with a very senior client of mine, visiting his numerous marketing offices.

During the second week of our trip, we arrived early in Lisbon for our meeting with the Portuguese Country Manager, and so decided to stop in a bar for a cup of coffee. It seemed only natural that the Senior Vice President of Global Marketing should order the coffee, so I kept respectfully silent as he summoned the waitress. This diminutive woman (five foot nothing, but utterly sure of her station in life) was clearly piqued by his imperious manner, and decided that she didn't speak any English.

My client didn't speak any Portuguese, and I watched in fascination as this splendid man, one of the most impressive and self-confident individuals I have ever met (not to mention one of the tallest), quickly discovered that he was completely unable to communicate, and was as a helpless infant in the hands of one rather short Portuguese waitress, simply because she wielded the weapon of language and he didn't.

In the end she disappeared for twenty minutes before sauntering back to our table and slamming down a cheese sandwich, two vodka martinis, a lump of quince jelly, and a losing ticket for the previous week's lottery draw. The check, it goes without saying, was epically inflated, and I noticed for the first time that my client wasn't actually that much taller than me.

Perhaps because language is the first and most alarming of the barriers we encounter when we travel with our brands, it is often perceived to be the principal barrier. Wrong. It's merely the first of many, and in several respects it's actually the simplest one of the lot.


Here is the tip of an iceberg, representing the dangers of language. Language, like the tip of the iceberg, is the bit you can see, and from that point of view it's a very simple phenomenon: it's difficult to get it right, but at least you know when you get it wrong.

In fact, you can be certain that the instant you get it wrong, you will hear from simply dozens of helpful individuals pointing out exactly how, where, and when you got it wrong, and just how foolish you now look for making such an elementary mistake.

There's very little complexity here. Ship bumps into iceberg, ship sinks. Company translates brochure wrongly, brochure is not understood. Soft drinks company translates slogan clumsily into Chinese, sentence in Chinese implies something unfortunate.

And the body of the iceberg represents culture. I forget what the exact proportions are with icebergs, but much of its bulk lies below the waterline, and this is the case with culture too.

I feel I ought to apologize for using icebergs as metaphors, since they have become as commonplace as disaster stories about Pepsi-Cola on the conference and training circuits: fortunately, I have an alternative metaphor up my sleeve.

A friend once told me that in certain African languages, they don't talk about the tip of the iceberg: what they say is the ears of the hippopotamus. I think this is a perfectly delightful expression, and of course very logical: after all, you don't see too many icebergs in Africa, or hippos in Iceland for that matter.

"The ears of the hippo" is also a better metaphor for the dangers of separating language and culture: one can imagine a confident brand owner going for a walk along the banks of the Zambezi. He or she spots these cute pink ears twitching Disneylike above the water and cheerfully dives in for a swim, only to discover too late that they are attached to a large and dangerous beast.

The image of the hippo instills a proper sense of respect in all of us who have to deal with him. The iceberg, after all, is just a dumb lump of cold stuff. It sits there in the water without moving around too much, and so long as you avoid the hours of darkness and Hollywood scriptwriters, you can usually steer around it.

The hippo, on the other hand, is aggressive, unpredictable, and voracious. Just like culture, if you give him half a chance, he will come and get you.


Of course, no discussion about international marketing disasters would be complete without a glance at all the product names which ended up meaning something awful in another language. Some of them are true gems, and I will tell you a few, but it's worth pointing out that the one thing these are not is translation errors (they are usually errors caused by a failure to translate), or even terribly interesting cultural gaffes: in my opinion, they are shining examples of incompetent business practice.

After all, failing to research something as crucial as the name of your product in the relevant marketplace before you launch it is staggeringly idiotic behavior, and these companies deserve all the humiliation they get.

One of the best sources of ghastly names is cars: for some reason, there are literally dozens of automobile names in the annals of global shame.

Some are quite boring: the Rolls Royce "Silver Mist." Mist means dung in German. And the one everybody knows is the Chevrolet Nova. In Spanish, no va means "it doesn't go." Big deal. These are the brand-name equivalents of brings your ancestors back from the dead, and they have an extremely high "so what" factor.

But some are more noteworthy: there was the AMC Matador, which ran into trouble when they launched it in South America. Now, you might think (as AMC did), that since Matador is a Spanish name anyway, meaning "Bullfighter," you don't have any problems there. But you do, because "matador" in Spanish doesn't just mean bullfighter: that's "torero." Out of context, "matador" simply means killer. Pure and simple: "Daddy, will you buy me a killer for Christmas?"

This one is also pretty well known, it's true, but I find it interesting trying to reconstruct how such an accident might have come about-- I think you'll agree that it's almost inconceivable that a major auto manufacturer could be so foolish as to launch a car in a country without asking one single native speaker what the name actually meant before they pushed the button which started the production line and stuck the badge on 56,000 cars costing $30,000 each.

The interesting thing is, they probably did ask a Spanish speaker, who probably did, quite correctly, assure them that matador does mean "bullfighter." The question they probably asked was "matador does mean bullfighter, doesn't it?" to which the correct answer is "yes." But this was the wrong question: what they should have asked was "should we call this car matador?", to which the only correct reply would have been "no."

And then the curious case of the Mitsubishi Pajero, and this is one I simply can't begin to figure out. Look up the word pajero in a Spanish dictionary. Nothing to do with cars at all. Pajero is an extremely vulgar word used to denote somebody who masturbates; in some parts of the Spanish-speaking world it is used to mean a liar, and in others, a plumber. In one sense, this is all perfectly rational: after all, most of the people who drive big cars like that are either plumbers, liars, wankers, or all three at once. But I doubt that's what Mitsubishi had in mind.

And can I really be the only person who's noticed that the Ford Focus is really rather unfortunately named for the French market? Pronounced as a French word, it sounds exactly like faux cul-- fake ass-- and whatever you decide that means, it certainly doesn't sound very nice. And if you pronounce it as an English word, but with a strong French accent, it sounds exactly like somebody saying "fuck us" with a strong French accent.

In Europe, there's a Japanese car (d'you know, I believe it's another Mitsubishi) called the Starion. I once got stuck behind one of these things in a traffic jam, and out of boredom was trying to work out what on earth they were thinking of when they came up with this bizarre-sounding name. Was it a rather cultivated mélange of star and Orion? Suddenly, the truth hit me: this is a Japanese car, and there are two smaller models in the same range called Pony and Colt.

Get it? If not, read this sentence aloud with a Japanese accent: "Pony, small horse. Colt, medium horse. Starion, big horse!"

Some car manufacturers think that they can escape these perils by using meaningless combinations of numbers and letters instead of proper model names. But if it's written in your destiny that you will commit a gaffe, then the gaffe will find you. The Toyota MR2 needed to be renamed in France because if you say it quickly, emme-erre-deux sounds just like merde. (In England, they call it Mister Two but Toyota don't seem to mind that). The Alfa Romeo 164 is called the 168 in Hong Kong because if you read out the number 164 in Cantonese, yut luk say, it sounds like yut lo say, meaning "death all the way." (168-- yut lo bat-- is read as yut lo fat: "prosperity all the way"). And a Saab model is known as the 900SE, which, in Saab typeface, reads "goose," as plain as your nose: not a brilliant image for a manufacturer which spent years pointing out that it makes cars the same way it makes supersonic jet fighters.

Personally, I'm really getting fed up with cars named after horses and strong winds, and mock-Italian names. [Except when they go wrong, of course: there's a comical duo of Asian cars on the roads at the moment, very harmoniously but completely nonsensically called Stanza (room) and Piazza (square)-- presumably they're not marketed in Italy under those names!]

In fact, using Italian or pseudo-Italian names for cars is just about the most boring thing you can do, as the following table shows:

I remember reading somewhere that as many as 50% of all new brands in Japan are now named after Italian towns and rivers, although this has probably more to do with the glamour of European-sounding names, the fact that Italian words are not too hard for Japanese consumers to pronounce (like Japanese words, Italian words almost invariably end with vowels), and the musical sound of the language, rather than any strict association with Italian brand values.

This obsession that cars have to have something Italian about them is symptomatic of a general tendency to ascribe certain clichés to countries and their cultures, and then use that cliché as a branding tool. It's a very powerful tool, but like all tools, it can be used clumsily and destructively, or it can be used with great delicacy, originality and effectiveness. This is a subject I'll talk about in more detail in the next chapter.

On the whole, it's dull being like everybody else, and I applaud the manufacturers who have the courage to really stand out from the crowd, and name their products according to a different set of conventions. What those conventions might be is frankly anybody's guess, but the Japanese are terribly good at it, and with the sole exception of the Volkswagen Rabbit, they own the genre. Some of my favorites are the Mitsubishi Fuso Fighter (particularly comical, this one, because fuso is an Italian word used to describe a piece of machinery which has become inoperative by melting down or overheating), the Mazda Bongo Browny, the Nissan Swingroad (a car with excellent road-holding, I'm sure), the Nissan Vanette Escargo (not slow at all, and bears the same relation to a Vanette Escargot as a Porsche Turbo does to a Porsche Turbot).

Actually, Nissan have rather a special talent for this game: they also have a Cedric, a Racheen, a Homy, and, most spectacularly, the incomparable Supreme Pantry-boy Deluxe (sadly only available in Japan at present).

I think it's about time some European and American manufacturers spotted the limitless potential of weird names, and followed the Rabbit. I can picture this approach spreading rapidly worldwide, and a sparkling host of radically-named models in years to come: the BMW 9.7 Fishcake Deluxe, the Ford Pustule, the Rover Anabolic Steroid V8 Coupé, the Pontiac Ptarmigan Gti, the Alfa Romeo Tagliatelle alla Romana Super Sport.

One could go on ad nauseam about product names. I do have a small personal collection of comically-named products which forms an appendix to my disaster story archive-- the air-freshener from Thailand called Arsole, the boiled candies for soccer-mad kids in Italy called Dribbling-- but it's laboring a very minor point.

Somebody once told me that if you say Wrigley's Spearmint Gum it sounds spookily like the Latvian for "shark's sperm." With all these stories, it's difficult to know (without wasting weeks of one's life on futile research) where reality ends, and where modern myths, Chinese whispers, local politics, or pure fantasy start.

I mention local politics because these scare stories are often perpetrated by people who work for the same company that owns the brand, and they are a potent weapon. After all, if I was your Estonian marketing manager and I told you that your latest slogan was strongly suggestive of the Estonian for gang-rape involving moose, you'd probably believe me. Wouldn't you?

Nothing at all to do with the fact that I would rather you gave me some proper local budget so I could hire a proper local agency, create some proper Estonian advertising that people will actually understand, and make a proper career for myself as a proper marketing director rather than a glorified fax machine linked to Head Office. Nothing either to do with the fact that my knowledge of my language and my culture is the only piece of influence you've left me with, so I'm going to use it against you for all I'm worth.

Fact is, there's a bit too much of this disaster stuff around already: for some reason, people keep on e-mailing me the same (or very similar) lists of assorted translation errors and disastrous brand names which they've dredged up from the web-- the same sad collection of linguistic shame which will probably continue swirling endlessly round certain back-waters of the internet until the end of time, like non-biodegradable plastic bottles trapped in eddies of dirty water under the end of Brighton pier. Perhaps they will now stop doing this.


And, lest all this sound pointlessly destructive and critical, I hasten to add that there is a much better way of creating international brand names, which not only eliminates the possibility of Pajero-style disasters, but also brings the power of cultural sensitivity and linguistic sensitivity to bear on this much-misunderstood strategic and creative process.

If you look at the way that international brand-names are commonly created, it won't come as much of a surprise to find that most of them were never meant to travel in the first place-- a domestic product may have existed quite happily for years until its owner suddenly decided to export it, and only then discovered that its name had undesirable connotations in other languages.

This is certainly the case with many of the disaster names described earlier in this chapter-- indeed, some of them, like Arsole and Dribbling, not to mention (which I didn't) the French soft drinks Pschiit! and Sic, the Japanese toilet paper Krappy, and the drink Pocari Sweat, are hardly ever seen outside their home markets, where, it is presumed, they make perfect sense: so laughing at them is really rather unfair.

It won't come as a surprise either to learn that most of the brand names which are devised specifically for the international market are created using methods which closely approximate the way that international advertising campaigns are generated: the creative work is done by a "lead" agency in the "lead" country in the "lead" language, and the international bit is very much an afterthought.

Whoever is doing the work (most brand names are created by specialist companies-- brand naming agencies, corporate identity specialists, design companies and branding consultancies-- or by the client's advertising agency, or by the client company itself), the way in which the issue of other markets is addressed is depressingly familiar to anyone who knows the workings of international ad agencies.

What generally happens is that a single, monocultural creative team (or sometimes a computer program) in the lead market generates a large number of "raw" names, from which they pick a shortlist of favorites which seem to answer the brief most effectively. These are then "disaster-checked" by the naming agency's own international affiliates or by some other method, to ensure that they don't mean anything too awful in any other languages.

Now, the chances of the chosen names not meaning, looking like, sounding like or in any way resembling any other word in any other language are extremely slight (especially since there is currently a tendency to try to make all international brand names look like Latin or Italian), so this stage of the process will very often eliminate the shortlist completely. It will certainly remove quite a few of the best names.

So the agency has to go back to its "longlist" and pick some more, and disaster-check these, and so it goes on. Finally, there is a shortlist of names which doesn't mean anything too awful in too many other languages, and that has to go forward for legal checks-- which usually eliminates this shortlist, because lots of companies with similar products have trodden this way before now, and registered all the most appropriate and internationally-safe names, so it's back to the longlist once again.

By the time a name is chosen and registered, it has usually come from so far down the original longlist, it's a minor miracle if anybody likes it at all.

But more to the point, its only international credentials are that it doesn't mean anything bad in any other languages than the original language, which is usually English. The question of whether it might actually mean something good, or indeed convey anything whatsoever, is hardly raised. That would really make the whole process far too complicated, wouldn't it?

The fact is that almost all brand names need to have some meaning to them, even the ostensibly "meaningless" ones. Of course, it's now virtually impossible to register real words as brandnames (either because they're already taken or because they're not considered sufficiently distinctive to be trademarkable), but even the most abstract coinings have some etymology, some reference-point.

And because this etymology must come from one language or another, and English is the best global lingua-franca we have, the result is that many of the international brand names in the world are moderately amusing or interesting in English and convey almost nothing in any other of the 100 or so major languages which are spoken by over 95% of the world's population: ThinkPad, 4Runner, Snapple, Baygon, Microsoft, Cornflakes, Frosties, Ray-Ban, Pop Tarts, Weight Watchers, DeskJet, NutraSweet, Duracell, Eveready, Maxfli, Dream-Works, and so on, are all names which are more or less completely mysterious to most people on this planet. Most continental Europeans I know believe that the Nissan Patrol is called by that name because it runs on gasoline (petrol) rather than Diesel. What's more, many of them are hard to pronounce, hard to spell and hard to remember if English doesn't happen to be your native language-- they cause the same level of embarrassment and anxiety as asking for a product with a difficult French name does for most Americans.

While I'm on the subject, I really must have a little moan about a naming convention which American English is forcing upon the rest of the world: what I call TrainCrash words. TrainCrash words are formed when two words collide, and a capital letter is left sticking up in the middle of the wreckage like an upended locomotive. Almost every software package on the market has a TrainCrash name, thanks to MicroSoft and the pervasive influence of its creator, Bill Gates.

(Actually, having said this, I realize that Microsoft actually don't use very many TrainCrash words for their own products these days-- in fact, if you type the word Microsoft with a capital "S" in the middle, as I just did, Microsoft Word's spellchecker will fussily correct it for you.)

I believe that I may be the first person to propose an etymology for the TrainCrash phenomenon, so please bear with me for a moment. This is important.

When the first big waves of Italian immigrants began to arrive in the United States in the nineteenth century, many had compound surnames, made of a partitive article plus their family name or birthplace (like Mario della Femmina or Antonio di Capri or Maria de' Curtis), which the primitive data processing equipment in use on Ellis Island was unable to cope with.

This was because these names had spaces in them, and the punchcard system suffered from the same bug as MS-DOS. Remember MS-DOS? If you tried to insert a space into a filename, the whole thing would crash, and you'd end up with a permanently unreadable, unaccessible, undeletable, unfindable file. So the immigration authorities began to join up the multiple surnames, but left a capital letter in the middle to show what they'd done: so della Rosa became DellaRosa, de' Vitis became DeVitis, and di Maggio became DiMaggio. And that's why American spelling has always had a weakness for these semi-Siamese words. Or at least, that's my theory.

Thank you for your attention.


I won't go into detail about how to make better international brand names, because the creative principles are exactly the same as with advertising campaigns, and I'll be discussing this in depth in Chapters 6 and 7.

Suffice to say that using a genuinely international creative team to brainstorm the original "longlist" makes a huge difference: you get more "raw" names, because of the infinitely larger lexical stock which all of those different native languages bring to the mix; the needs of the speakers of those languages are considered at the start of the process rather than treated as a mere disaster-check, so there's a real chance of coming up with a name which might actually convey some-thing in more than one language; and you don't lose 95% of your best work through language clashes, because that part of the filtering process is continuous throughout the process.

In the end, though, a name is just a word-- a combination of probably not very many letters on a piece of paper, and it's important to appreciate how much it can do and how much it can't do.

For a start, there's what I call the disappointment factor. A name is an extremely difficult thing to appreciate at first glance, and the first reaction to a naming proposal is very often disappointment: until the name exists, the company's mind is agreeably humming with a sense of infinite, unexplored possibilities, and the temptation, when finally presented with those few letters on a page, to exclaim "is that all?" is almost overwhelming.

Some of the most powerful brand names in the world are actually little more than empty vessels, into which one pours brand equity through the diligent application of marketing. The very least one requires of such a name is that it should be distinctive enough for the company to own it unequivocally and without threat of confusion with other people's brands; and that it should be reasonably useable (spellable, pronounceable, memorable, etc). The name will acquire an aura of greatness around it as a result of the successful marketing of the product it relates to, and that will make the name itself appear to have magical properties. But the magic you're seeing is not the vessel itself-- it's the brand shining through the vessel.

Most of the really good names in the world work rather like this. Imagine you're Bill Bowerman, it's 1971, and you've just paid us a large sum to invent a brandname for your new running shoes. After weeks of secret development work, we're finally ready to present you with our recommendation. After due ceremony, we finally hand you a piece of paper. On it is typed the single word


You'd probably stare at this word for a while, and then say, "It looks like you spelt Mike wrong."

So I'd say, "Actually, it's pronounced Ni-kee," and you'd probably say, "So it's not pronounced the way it's spelled?"

To which I'd answer, "No, because it's the name of the ancient Greek goddess of victory," at which point you'd probably yell, "But for crying out loud, this is meant to be a cutting-edge youth brand and you're talking to me about ancient Greece?"

And in a sense we're both right. You're right to be disappointed, because at this point in time, the word is entirely worthless. I can't begin to guess, and neither can you, how magical that little word is going to look after it's appeared on twenty million pairs of shoes in a hundred thousand city-center stores from Mumbai to L.A., on a hundred advertising campaigns, thousands of billboards around the world, and on the shirts and pants and caps and socks and shoes of half the world's greatest athletes.

Somehow, you were expecting me to present you with one of those great brand-names like Snickers or Pepsi, and it would leap off the page at you.

But brand names only leap off the page for three reasons.

One, because a company has already made them famous, and nobody can ever guess that in advance just by looking at the word. Two, they're so creatively clever that you marvel at how much smartness can be crammed into just one word: and the trouble with those kinds of names is that they only ever work in one language. Three, they've just got some kind of indefinable magic, or symmetry, or harmony, or beauty about them: they just feel right, and that's one thousand per-cent subjective. I can absolutely guarantee that if you feel that way about it, no more than four or five in every ten people you speak to will feel the same way. Internationally, it will be far less. This isn't a good reason not to use it: but it is a thing to remember.

In the end, the only things that matter are that it feels good to you; that it means something in at least a handful of your most important markets; and that it's a good, strong, unique vessel with no holes in it, so you can start pouring in that brand value, secure in the knowledge that it's not running out at the bottom as fast as you pour it in.


The desire to translate words as closely as possible is often most acute when it comes to expressions of corporate rather than product-based messaging: taglines, for example, are often forced to be more similar in different languages than is really good for them.

This probably happens because something as important as a tagline has usually been wrestled with and agonized over for many months at the highest level in the corporation, and the thought of having to go through even a small part of that approval process again for every export market, and in foreign languages too boot, is more than most people can bear to contemplate. What's more, a company's tagline has often been around for quite a few years, and the prospect of changing it for the first time in decades, just because some upstart foreigner doesn't think it works in his language, may appear unreasonable.

So if you want your key corporate message to speak to people in their own language, where do you start? As you might have guessed, having read this far, the closest translation of a tagline is almost by definition the solution which is least likely to be effective in another language.

Take Nike's famous tagline, Just Do It. This sentence or epithet is, for a start, almost literally untranslatable: to show why, try explaining in a couple of English sentences what the precise function of "just" is in this context. Or exactly what "it" refers to (curiously, in several European languages, an unspecified "it" in a sentence like this will almost always be taken to refer to the male reproductive organ). Or who it is addressed to. Or even what the whole thing means, exactly. Now, none of this means it isn't a good line in English: it's brilliant. But it combines remarkably little specific meaning with a great deal of general power, tone, and style.

When Nike began to advertise seriously in Europe in the early 1990s, we advised them that this was one of the few cases where we felt it was genuinely for the best to leave the line in English wherever possible-- not because it was hard to translate, but because it was so important that the line should convey a great deal without actually meaning too much, and using a foreign language like English was an excellent way of achieving this.

Sentiments expressed in a foreign language are often seen by the recipient through a misty, glamorizing veil of partial comprehension, which in the right context can be extremely good for the brand. Using English in the case of Nike also served to reinforce a very important part of the brand's pedigree in Europe-- that it comes from America.

The important point to remember about using English in non-English speaking countries (or, indeed, using any language outside its home market) is that what you gain in glamour by seeming foreign, you lose in precise communication, because people's understanding of your language can only be superficial. It takes a very high level of fluency indeed before a non-native speaker can begin to read the kinds of secondary and tertiary meanings, inferences, and echoes which are such an important part of key communications like taglines. But here was a perfect example of a line which was all about glamour, and nothing to do with precise communication whatsoever.

And everything would have carried on just fine, if it hadn't been that Jacques Toubon, the French Minister for Culture, decided to pass a law in 1995 which made the use of English or any other foreign language in advertising or other public communications an offence punishable by imprisonment.

So we were presented with a rather difficult task. Here was a piece of language which seemed the quintessentially American expression of a quintessentially American thought-- obviously, you wouldn't want to translate it, but executing the same brief or communicating the same brand premise in another language becomes a virtual impossibility when the brief itself is so elusive and hard to define.

If it means anything at all, Just Do It means get off your ass! More properly, it is part of the Nike philosophy: you are in charge, you are the master of your own destiny. Don't sit around talking about it, it seems to be telling us, just get out and get running. That might make it sound like a brutish, anti-intellectual, aggressive sentiment, and admittedly Nike has had its aggressive phases, especially during the success-oriented 1980s: but because it's such a gnomic, brief, and mysterious utterance, Just Do It, said in a different tone of voice, could also sit quite happily on the Karmic, new age, meditative work that Wieden & Kennedy were creating for some audiences (especially for European women) in the mid-1990s.

Various members of our French team at this point suggested solutions along the lines of Passez à l'action: move into action. The trouble is, such a sentiment just doesn't seem to have the same potential for becoming a brand mantra as Just Do It: it doesn't have the same depth or simplicity, or the same potential for multiple interpretations. It is mainly physical, while Just Do It is also emotional, moral, and spiritual: somehow, it manages to sound more like an exhortation than an imperative: perhaps it's partly the effect of that untranslatable just.

Using direct commands like Just Do It always seemed to result in aggressive-sounding lines in French, and none of our French team felt happy using imperative sentences. For a start, there are very few antecedents for this-- commands had never been used much as taglines in French advertising, and although we were keen to do something new, the French needed to sound natural enough to avoid giving the impression that the extremely well-known English line had been dragged backwards through a dictionary.

Imperatives in French sound so blunt because that's not how French people normally speak to each other-- do this, do that. No matter how we tried to do it, it sounded like an order barked out to the multitude (and remember, last time someone got into the habit of ordering the French populace around, there was a revolution).

Normally, like any polite person, a French speaker who wants somebody to do something will ask them to do it, rather than simply telling them-- and the courteous circumlocutions can get quite elaborate: a polite request in perfectly common language, such as est-ce que vous pourriez me donner ce livre, s'il vous plaît? actually means is it that you could give me this book, if it pleases you? In English, and especially in American English, we often use direct commands but make them sound like a request or a gentle exhortation just by modifying our tone of voice. But in French, as in many other languages, the difference between a command or a request or an exhortation is more often made grammatically or syntactically, and that makes it far too long-winded for a tagline.

There was also the important consideration that in the French language, as in many languages, we also have two ways of addressing people directly: tu (the informal or intimate address, such as you use for speaking to a single person with whom you have some intimacy, such as a child, a lover, a close friend, or relation: the equivalent of thou in the English of previous centuries), and vous (the formal address for people you don't know so well, and for groups of people: it's rather similar in this sense to the y'all form used in the Southern United States-- developed, perhaps, because the descendents of French settlers were missing their vous). Standard Modern English is relatively unusual in not having this distinction.

The selection of which pronoun to use is one of the first questions which a brand needs to resolve when addressing its audience in countries where the distinction exists: does it want to sound like a young person speaking intimately and informally to another young person, and run the risk of sounding careless or intrusive or childish or patronizing or rude; or does it opt for the safer, plural form, and run the risk of sounding too formal, too cold, too elderly, and distancing itself from the very people it's trying to reach out and touch? Clearly, Nike had to be a tu brand, because its message was from a youthful brand to a youthful consumer, and the last thing we wanted was any suggestion of formality: one of the appeals of U.S. brands like Nike to young consumers in France is that their American provenance appears to promise freedom from a world where the adults are in charge.

In the end, the factor which ultimately dictated the direction we took was an observation from one of our French team about the French character: the French are, it is often said, intellectuals by nature and by habit. Well, this may not be the literal truth about all French people, but they certainly do hate to be treated like fools. So what we did was to split the whole Just Do It argument into its component parts:

  1. You are in charge of your life.
  2. Therefore, if you want to change something, you can.
  3. It's a case of not thinking too hard about things.
  4. So just do it.

We decided to honor the intellect of our French consumers, and merely set them out on the argument, so that they could deduce the rest for themselves. This, we felt was the solution which communicated the greatest sense of empowerment, without seeming like a petty or detailed command for how to live your own life. So we just gave them part 1 of the argument, which came out as Ta vie est à toi-- your life is your own.

The trouble with something as well-known yet un-pin-down- able as Just Do It is that everybody has their own personal idea of what it means, and they don't like it if you overlay this with something different. Most French kids have only the vaguest idea of what Just Do It actually means in English, but they feel they understand it, and they happily cover their scooters with stickers bearing this slogan, and if you start telling them in their own language what you think it stands for, they will probably resent it. It's a bit like when the movie of your favorite novel comes out, and suddenly all of your own internal imagery is replaced with somebody else's, and you're sitting in the cinema and you feel like standing up and shouting out loud, "What are you talking about, you idiot? She had red hair, not blonde, and anyway, the farm was in a valley, not on the top of a hill!"

This little Nike story could easily have gone on for a whole chapter, and the complexities surrounding the transfer of one tiny utterance from one culture to another might seem out of all proportion to its size and importance. (I remember that the positioning document which we produced to support our final recommendations in French was over 20 pages long.) It's just like the amount of labor which goes into creating and producing a TV commercial: we might labor for months over the idea and the script, and shoot almost enough footage to make a feature film (not to mention spending more per second than most feature films spend per minute), all for the sake of perhaps 20 seconds of finished commercial, which one could argue that most consumers won't even notice.

It's all down to the principle of concentrated value: the more densely you pack your message with quality, the better your chances that somebody will notice it-- at least in theory. A more pragmatic reason is simply to do with competitiveness, and the never-ending arms race of quality: everybody else is doing their stuff to this standard, so you have to keep on beating them. But I do sometimes wonder where it's all going to end.

By the way, the literal translation of Just Do It in Italian is fallo, which also happens to mean (a) phallus and (b) a sporting foul. Now there's a disaster story waiting to happen!


It is because agonizing dilemmas like this so often occur that companies and their advertising agencies so frequently take refuge in the English language. As I write, I can think of at least 12 British and American companies which use their English-language tagline on all their international advertising, even though in many cases it must be next to incomprehensible to the vast majority of ordinary consumers in those countries.

And even if it is broadly comprehensible, that's not at all the same thing as being fully understood, appreciated and effective. Take Nokia's current tagline, Connecting People, which is currently used in all of their markets worldwide. Now, the main reason why this line gives pleasure and works well in English is because of the two ways you can read it, syntactically speaking:

  1. Nokia people are in the business of connecting (connecting used adjectivally, so people becomes the subject of the phrase).
  2. Nokia are connecting other people (connecting used verbally, so people becomes the object of the phrase).

And this double read gives what would otherwise be a fairly bland statement a certain depth, a certain resonance.

Now I'd be prepared to bet that less than 1% of all Nokia's consumers outside the English-speaking markets would get these two reads, even if prompted. And I mean less than 1% of those among their consumers who actually speak enough English to be able to understand those two words in the first place-- so the final figure could be very small indeed.

The result? Nothing serious, nothing like brings your ancestors back from the dead: but what has happened is fairly typical of international advertising. The English-speaking world gets a creative line, which is clever, memorable, and intelligent; the rest of the world gets something pretty boring, and not creative or distinctive at all. Consequently, the personality of the Nokia brand has missed an opportunity to express something very important about itself to the majority of its consumers: that it's intelligent, youthful, creative, and slightly different from the usual multinational corporation.

That line, read in a one-dimensional sense by a non-native speaker of English, will get a very different message: corporate, bland, and probably American, since it's speaking to us in English, and something to do with helping people to communicate. Big deal, it's a phone company, what do you expect them to do?

And so English wins yet again, whether or not people really want it or understand it. I do have some sympathy with Monsieur Toubon, and although part of me wishes that he had a nice influential pan-European job in Brussels rather than a national one in Paris, I am also well aware that I am getting close to 40, and once people get close to 40, they always start bemoaning the erosion of culture and the pollution of language, and nearly-40-year-old people have been doing this for centuries, and nothing very bad has happened yet. The only really bad thing that can happen to a language is that it dies out, and this usually happens because somebody kills all the people who speak it, not through the gentle, natural processes of linguistic evolution.

All languages are greatly enriched by the influence of loan words from other languages (indeed, much of the reason why English is such a versatile and effective language is precisely because we have welcomed so many immigrant words from other languages over the centuries). There are rather more of these around than people often imagine, as this tiny selection suggests:

As my linguistics tutor at Oxford constantly repeated to me, don't prescribe, merely describe. Nothing is more fair or more natural than usage: if enough speakers of a language don't find a new word useful or pleasurable, it won't stick, and if it does stick, it's because it answers a need. And thus language continues to progress.

And yet it seems to me that some nations-- I'm thinking particularly of the Italians, but they're hardly the only ones-- suffer just a bit too much from Groucho Marx syndrome (I'd never belong to a club that would have someone like me for a member), and all too readily assume that just because something comes from abroad, it's necessarily superior to anything Italian.

The Italians' current love-affair with the English language is reaching epidemic levels, and (with due apologies to my linguistics professor) I think it's a terrible pity. All of these ornate, complex, and beautiful Romance languages-- Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, Romanian-- find it extremely difficult to compete with English in the modern world. In an age of speed and science, English is perfectly equipped to survive and prosper, with its minimal grammar, its vast vocabulary (probably a million words if you count all the scientific neologisms), and its simple, robust, and logical syntax. You can bark out a comprehensible English phrase in fractions of a second, and because its words are generally quite short and its rhythm broadly iambic, it also happens to work extremely well in rock music. French, Spanish, and Italian lyrics always sound decidedly squashed in the relentless 4: 4 march time of all rock music-- their beautiful endings tend to get uncomfortably truncated-- while English is perfectly at home when it's hammered out like a typewriter or a machine-gun.

I have a copy of Amica open in front of me (a popular upscale women's magazine from Italy), and a quick count reveals an average of 16 English words per page inserted into the editorial (and lots in the advertising too), and for no other reason than that it is thought to sound sophisticated. In no case is English used because there's no proper word for the concept in Italian.

People who work in ad agencies in Italy, for example, almost never say they work in pubblicità: they work in advertising, with the "r" rolled and the emphasis cutely misplaced on the third syllable of the word. Why? Because it makes it sound more glamorous, that's why. Exactly the same thing as ratcatchers telling people that they are in pest control.

And very often, over time, the English word begins to drift free of its moorings, and take on a subtly different sense: il feeling, for example, means something far deeper, more profound, than it does in modern American English: it's all about chemistry between people who understand each other deeply, a mysterious, instinctive bond of friendship-- fellow feeling, in fact. For ages, the Italian tagline for Heineken beer has been C'è Heineken, c'è feeling--( where) there's Heineken, there's feeling. But this is feeling in its original sense of one more time, with feeling.

Or else there's the English word water, which is used in Italian to mean a toilet (it was originally water closet, an obscure Victorian euphemism, but Italians are convinced that it's short for water closed, whatever that's supposed to mean), but the expression has become truncated over the years for the sake of brevity, and instead of dropping the less important word (water) the Italians have dropped the critical word (closet). And they've done this by analogy with their own syntax: in Italian, as with all Romance languages, the noun comes first and the modifier comes second, so where we say "The White House" or "a big dog," Italians say "The House White" and "a dog big." It's logical, therefore, to drop the first word, as the noun is always more important than the adjective, which is why you often see gas stations in Italy called "self centers"--" self service" has been truncated to "self," and added onto another loan-word, "center," and hence a new piece of Italglish is born


When a fragment of language becomes transported from its original home, the alien culture begins to accrete around it, and it undergoes a mysterious sea-change, like a rock with strange coral growing on it, until, eventually, it takes on an entirely unrecognizable appearance. This is also why no French person has the faintest idea what we're talking about when we use the expression déjà vu to describe that weird sense of having experienced something before: in French, the expression simply means something tired and passé (another expression that's not really French at all, by the way: the French would say dépassé).

Hardly any language on the planet is immune from this effect (and English is by no means always the source of the borrowing). In many ways, it's a metaphor for what happens with culture: we borrow from other cultures, we modify those borrowings to suit our purposes and tastes, and thus our culture becomes more "rich and strange"-- to continue Shakespeare's theme-- and the process is decidedly a journey towards wealth, not poverty.

So let us never feel ashamed or guilty about sending out our brands or our advertising into the world. The process is entirely voluntary: if people find what we offer of value, they will accept it, and if not, they will reject it.


Not long ago, I was discussing a proposed pan-European mailing campaign with an American client of ours, and we were going over the different variants on the standard pack which each country would require: different response mechanisms to allow for the vagaries of each consumer culture, different payment methods to cope with numerous currencies and banking systems (at least the Euro is making this simpler), different sizes and weights to comply with the oddities of certain postal systems, and variations on the basic promotional mechanic to match legislation in each country.

When we finally came to listing the eight or more languages we would need to write the copy in, my client smiled the first smile I'd seen on her face since the meeting started, and seemed to relax a little.

"Well, at least we can simplify things here," she said, glowing with pride. "I've had my people do some research on this, and we've found that over 60% of our target group in Holland, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden speak English. So we only need to have the copy in English, French, Italian and Spanish."

But I couldn't share her relief. As I've said before, however well a person may speak a second language, each of us really only has one mother tongue-- the language we dream in, think in, the language which speaks to our heart and soul. Acquired languages go to the head; they may be understood, but they don't touch us deep down inside. Even in countries like the Netherlands and Sweden, where English is rapidly becoming accepted as the standard language of the workplace, there's a big difference between your mother tongue and your boss tongue.

The second, more practical reason for advertising to people in their native tongue is that we are in a very competitive business: every time we send a message to a consumer, that message is fighting for tiny fractions of mindshare in an increasingly busy environment.

Now, even for the consumer who speaks two languages, receiving and understanding a message in her second language requires more effort and more concentration than receiving one in her native language.

So when the question comes up, why can't we just use English? I always ask this question: do you think that consumers should make the effort to understand us, or should we be making the effort to be understood by them?

Are we more interested in being respected, or showing respect?

If nothing else, it's a question of mere politeness: if you want this consumer to fork out hard-earned cash for your product, the least you can do is write to her in her own language. A brand that has taken the trouble to communicate with consumers in their preferred language, as decades of successful ethnic marketing in the United States have shown, is a respected and treasured brand.

Expecting a Dutch consumer to read your advertisement in a foreign language-- such as English-- is hardly any different from expecting him to pay for your product in dollars instead of guilders or euros. Sure, he can do it if he really wants to. But why should he want to?

And there's another very important issue here: it's very easy to forget, in an increasingly bilingual world, in which English is more often than not the second language of choice, that it is still a foreign language for most people, and this is not a neutral fact. Using English in marketing communications says something very specific about your brand: depending on the sophistication of your target audience, it may no longer necessarily mean that you are from North America or Britain, and it may simply imply that you're an "international" company-- which is, I suppose, what Nokia hope. But using English abroad means that the use of that language changes from being a transparent, even invisible medium of ordinary communication at home to being, in and of itself, a strong statement abroad. Quite aside from anything else, in non English-speaking markets, it confirms that wherever you come from, you certainly don't come from there.

For brands whose provenance is already a strong element within their brand personality, the use of English in their consumer marketing will reinforce this aspect of the brand, and it's crucial to be aware of how much, and in what way this is happening. For a brand which is already perceived as "very American," using all-English advertising may push its American-ness way beyond the bounds of what is considered attractive and welcoming by its European or Asian consumers, and may start implying "I just don't care whether you understand what I'm saying or not." For a brand which is not perceived as American at all, using English may confuse consumers, and even give rise to accusations of "pretentiousness."

It's certainly true that whenever research is carried out into levels of proficiency in English, the results seem impressive, especially amongst professionals, and my client was not at all unusual in leaping to the conclusion that this effectively licensed her to use English in all of her marketing.

However, it's worth bearing in mind that people's claimed linguistic preference, and linguistic expertise, may well be exaggerated in research groups. After all, speaking fluent English in most business environments is a matter of pride and a matter of status, so very few people are going to admit to unfamiliarity with the language, especially in a focus-group environment, where they are likely to be surrounded by their peers. Indeed, if asked whether they prefer to be addressed in their own language or in English, many will reply "English" automatically, since this merely provides further confirmation of their professional qualities and global mindset.

Fluent English is the ultimate executive accessory in most non-English-speaking countries, and as many publishers of English-language business magazines have discovered to their surprise, significant numbers of their readers may have considerable difficulty actually reading the magazine: they simply like having it under their arm as they stride through airports.

This is, incidentally, one of the many reasons why advertising English-language products in foreign languages is not as illogical as it may sound: in fact, there are remarkably few cases where it is genuinely in the best interests of the brand not to advertise to consumers in their own language.

Yes, we're lucky that English is the native tongue of our brands. It does make life extremely easy for us, because it's undoubtedly a widely-spoken language. So are Chinese, Spanish, French, and Portuguese. Our good fortune is that English is also spoken by many millions of non-native speakers, which is not the case with the others.

English works very well as a lingua franca because it's exceptionally easy to get started in: owing to its extremely simple grammar (its verbs hardly conjugate, its nouns and adjectives do not decline, and there are no genders to speak of), you can learn enough English to perform basic two-way communication in a matter of weeks.

To master it is an entirely different matter, because so many of the rules of colloquial English are unwritten. In this sense, it's the opposite of German, which is extremely hard to get started but relatively simple to perfect. Learning German is like learning the violin: it's very discouraging at first, because all you can produce is ugly scratching noises, while learning English is like learning the piano: you need only minimal technique to begin experimenting with it.

But these accidents of history and philology should not fool us into thinking that coming from an English-speaking nation gives us a fast track to easy and successful international marketing.

Nothing on earth can change the fundamental principle that when you want a consumer to buy your product, that consumer is your boss. And if you only do what suits you, rather than what suits your boss, you may find that real success remains forever, mysteriously, just beyond your grasp. So where do we start figuring out how to treat consumers right, even if we know next to nothing about them? The next chapter is all about culture, which is where our journey begins.

Table of Contents

The Trouble with Words.
The Trouble with Culture.
Global Brand or Global Bland?
The Trouble with Creativity.
Network = Notwork.
The New International Line-Up.
Going It Alone.
More than Just Ads.
Where Do We Go from Here?
About the Author.

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