Any communicator working on a global brand understands the need to localize a campaign for the regional culture where it is being presented. But aligning a key message for a brand or organization so that it is clearly understood and appreciated in one community – geographical or otherwise – shouldn't come at the detriment of another group.
Recently, two global organizations, both savvy marketers, though one a nonprofit, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and Microsoft, were tripped up by local advertising that surprise, surprise, found its way to other parts of the globe that were less than pleased.
In changing an ad from its US Web site into one to appear in Poland, Microsoft photoshopped out a black man and replaced him with a white man (minus a hand). US bloggers pointed out the discrepancy and soon enough the company was issuing the apology-investigate mantra that follows such incidents.
This week, an ad made for WWF, presumably to depict the stark realities of climate change hit another nerve when it seemed to trivialize the horrors of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The ad was created in Brazil for the local WWF affiliate by its local ad agency, DDB. While the US branches of the organizations are pleading ignorance, the incident demonstrates another communication miscalculation. Regardless of whether or not the ad was expected to run in the US, the designers should have been “globally” aware.
These types of incidents aren't new. Vodka brand Absolut came under fire more than a year ago for one of its iconic “In an Absolut World” ads that was directed at Mexicans and envisioned a North America where Mexico retained areas like California and Texas. The ad was intended to run in Mexico only, and to appeal to local sentiment.
At the time, Absolut's communications manager issued a statement: “As a global company, we recognize that people in different parts of the world may lend different perspectives or interpret our ads in a different way than was intended in that market. Obviously, this ad was run in Mexico, and not the US -- that ad might have been very different.”
The Internet long ago further shrunk the distance between countries and cultures already being brought together by globalization. Companies should realize at a minimum that there's a good chance that what they're creating for one community will show up in another. Edge can be a good thing, but it shouldn't come at the expense of another target audience – and one as large and diverse as the US really doesn't seem wise. Maybe some in marketing believe that the risk of actually losing a sale over one of these incidents is relatively low, so it's worth the buzz. But though someone might still choose to upgrade to the next Windows software or pick up a bottle of Absolut for their next gathering, those ill feelings fuel into the mounting distrust that Americans have for their corporations and brands.
While PR and communication efforts might not have the same visibility level as an ad campaign, the same lessons apply. Yes, global brand messages will be envisioned and tweaked to the local level, but remember that local doesn't stay local anymore.