Landing the right message  

Editor’s note: Martin Oxley is a client consultant at DVJ Insights. This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared under the title “Landing Your Intended Message: Speaking So You Are Understood.”

It is not easy to develop an advertising message that is motivating and relevant to your target audience when it oftentimes varies by country, motivations, age and history. The more “creative” or “edgy” we try to be to break through, the more we risk sending the wrong message, wasting money or just making fools of ourselves. However, it is possible to do all three without much effort.

Ad misinterpretation: Ensuring an ad translates properly across all audiences 

It reminds me of a conversation I had years ago with a client who had worked on a press campaign for a skin cream that helps alleviate itchy skin. The creative idea that was generated for U.S. and Western European markets was of a man running up a wall because he had itchy skin and “it was driving him up the wall.” This is a commonly used idiom in English which lends itself nicely to the frustrations felt when you have itchy skin but also the visual treatment. So far so good you would have thought.

The advertisements – if I recall correctly – were directly translated and used in Arabic-speaking countries. However, this led to confusion as the intended message, suggesting the cream prevents irritation, was misconstrued to imply that the cream would induce irritation. Thus, the ad’s message was flipped from a problem-solving product to one that seemingly caused the issue. Of course, this is amusing, but at the same time, it shows that local knowledge is critical to success.

Taking an unintentional political stand 

Another example with darker undertones was an ad I saw at Belfast airport in 1994 when “the troubles” were still ongoing. Those of you unfamiliar with “the troubles” in Northern Ireland need to know this was sectarian violence between separate groups.

This is not the place to go into the details of this conflict, but Wikipedia provides a good summary“The conflict was primarily political and nationalistic, fueled by historical events. It also had an ethnic or sectarian dimension but despite the use of the terms Protestant and Catholic to refer to the two sides, it was not a religious conflict.”

Now despite it not being a religious conflict, both sides did use religious language and historical references. For the purposes of this article, what it means is that the color orange is associated with the Orange Order, a Protestant organization and is often seen as a symbol of loyalty to the British Crown. Does it make sense so far? What does this have to do with advertising, you wonder? 

Imagine that you work for Orange Telecom – which is now the main telecommunications company in France, the third largest in Europe and one of the largest in the world. It used to be called France Telecom. You are an advertising manager not knowing about the subtleties of the meaning of orange or you wanted to use advertising across the U.K., not realizing that Northern Ireland is part of the U.K.

However, when I walked down the escalator at Belfast airport, I saw a big ad that said, “The future’s bright, the future’s Orange.” This was the key advertising strapline for Orange. I remember being shocked. For a brand to accidentally align with one of the sides in the dispute was provocative to say the least. As an aside, I often wonder if the brand did better with protestants in Northern Ireland.

Transcreation is key in advertising 

These two examples are illustrations of the problems with international communication, there is always a solution: Transcreation (rather than translation) and of course, research.

I am sure most of you are familiar with the term transcreation but, if not, it’s the combination of translation and creation. It changes a message from one language to another, keeping the original meaning, style, tone and context. The aim is to make people feel the same way in both languages. It’s like localization, adapting translations fully for the audience. Transcreation is common in worldwide marketing and ads, focusing on the translator’s creativity. It often includes changing words, videos and images for the audience. 

Research has two key roles in helping you land your intended message. The first is exploratory which is crucial for ensuring that the message and creative concept resonate with and motivate the intended audience across various countries and target groups. The second role is evaluative, this focuses on assessing whether the execution successfully achieves its intended objectives. This process not only confirms effectiveness but also offers valuable insights into potential enhancements. It guides how the execution can be fine-tuned to maximize its impact and effectiveness. 

Hopefully, this story is a reminder of the continuous need for clarity and empathy to ensure effective communication.