Your colleagues overseas inform you that, despite the merits of your campaign, “it won’t work here.” Or they do buy into the campaign, stipulating some “local adaptation.” Sounds fair enough. Yet upon closer inspection you learn that the adaptations are at odds strategically with your global brand platform.
Or these strategic incongruities are masked by adopting a common graphic element to hold things together. A solution of sorts. But one which begs the question: why did you expend so much energy in the first place when all you had to do was obtain worldwide approval on, let’s say, a yellow border?
Universal Brand Platforms vs. Local Realities
Welcome to the world of global brand storytelling, where the virtual realities of universal brand platforms confront the concrete realities of language, culture, turf and ego.
I began exploring that world in the mid-80s, when I found myself living in Vienna and working throughout Europe, creating what were then referred to as “border-crossing” campaigns. For close to 10 years I found myself having to come to terms with the unique problems and paradoxes of communicating brand stories worldwide.
What I learned is that cultural and linguistic idiosyncracies often collude with political pressures and out-moded ways of thinking to cause brand messages to fragment as they make their way around the world.
I call it Brand Entropy.
Brand Entropy And The Limitations of Language
Brand Entropy is caused, among other reasons, by the limitations of language itself. And by the language used in the past to discuss and define brands.
The prevailing dogma has been to characterize brands in terms that are abstract, poetic, even mystical: One talks of a brand’s Essence, Voice, Spirit. Such concepts are highly culturally-dependent. Indeed, within your own culture there might be some intuitive consensus as to what such poetic abstractions really mean, or how they should be acted upon. But once you cross borders, it’s a whole new game. Robert Frost really nailed it when he said, “poetry is what gets lost in translation.”
If you take the time to look at it, you’ll see for yourself. A considerable amount of advertising, and often the very best advertising, can’t really be translated. (Or let’s just say a lot gets lost along the way.) Sure, your translation service or overseas creatives will deliver you something. But if what drove your ad was a cultural reference or linguistic play, what exactly are you getting?
So if it can’t be translated, you adapt it. An ambiguous term at best. And often a euphemism for each country doing its own thing, whether on-message or not. Which may actually be the only possible response if what they’re adapting is so culturally-dependent as to obscure what the message really is.
What results is a troubling disconnect between agreed-on brand platforms and the actual advertising that’s produced in the end.
This needn’t be the case, and there are numerous examples to prove it. It’s important to recognize, however, that there’s a category of advertising that can go global and remain on-message, and an even larger category that’s likely to fragment.
With more and more organizations declaring “One world, one brand, one company,” we need to be able to tell the difference. And understand how to expend our resources on creating one and not the other.
Global Brand Storytelling is a Discipline In Itself
Global brand storytelling is a discipline in itself, one that requires us to consider global issues and the threat of Brand Entropy every step of the way.
For starters, we need to be clear from the very beginning as to what we mean by a global brand story. What elements are non-negotiable, and what’s up for interpretation? Would we be satisfied, for example, to design that yellow border and then call it a day? Or does every element of every execution around the world have to be exactly the same? what exactly do we mean by exactly?
The global discipline also demands that we be meticulously clear when defining what our story is, and just as important, what it is not. This means rather than discussing creative in terms of culturally-dependent abstractions like tone and manner, style and personality, essence and voice, we need to approach it in terms of concrete propositions and ideas. Ideas that can be expressed rationally and understood universally. Concepts that have merit independent of the language or style in which they’re expressed.
If you took a headline, for example, and boiled it down to the underlying idea, removing all its stylistic flair, its idiomatic grace, its poetry, in fact, all the things that make it sing, would it still be comprehensible, would it still have merit, would it still be ownable, would you still approve it?
Thinking in this way is crucial because that line will be sent overseas for translation or adaptation, at which time its stylistic merits become totally irrelevant. All that’s left to work with is the idea. And if the idea isn’t clear, or it’s imbedded within the style, some big-time Brand Entropy is bound to follow.
This principle applies equally well when defining the parameters of your TV spots, your visual ideas, each and every aspect of your campaign: if you can’t explain it rationally, you need to re-think your work.
Not that your story need be devoid of style or emotion. In the end, your creatives around the world will make sure that it sings. But by starting from a more rational place, at least they’ll be singing the same tune.
For years, companies have been preparing stylistic guidelines to unify their global look. If we wish to maintain substantive coherence, we need to create conceptual guidelines as well. It’s akin to the writing of law. How well a law is drafted, how broad or narrow, how many loopholes are included, all determine its execution, interpretation, success or failure.
Certainly no easy task, and one that raises all sorts of messy questions, e.g., What exactly is a concept? What’s the meaning of an idea?
But if you really want to avoid Brand Entropy and communicate more coherently on a worldwide level, it’s certainly worth the effort.
As we have learned over the last decade, huge cultural differences exist in our interconnected global community.
By defining your brand storytelling more precisely, more accurately and more rationally, you’ll have a better shot at managing those differences and creating the global brand you want.