How TBWA and McDonald's Japan worked with a British artist without becoming lost in translation

TBWA\Hakuhodo commissioned British illustrator Dan Woodger to create this image for McDonald’s Japan tray mats

When TBWA\Hakuhodo commissioned British illustrator Dan Woodger to create an image for McDonald’s Japan tray mats that celebrated the 2017 summer season and promoted its ‘sweet treats’ products, they realised they had a minor problem – Woodger did not speak or understood a word of Japanese.

So why then, did the agency stuck with Woodger and how did both parties overcame the language barrier to bring the pitch to life?

According to McDonald’s Japan brief to TBWA\Hakuhodo, the brand wanted to simply to create a summer tray-mat featuring the three main desserts at McDonald’s Japan: Soft twist, McShakes, and McFlurry. After internal discussions, the agency decided that the theme should be a day at the beach, to emphasise the summer season and make customers crave for a cold dessert under the hot sun.

As the tray mat needed to show off a fun and playful spirit, the agency set out to search for suitable artists and eventually settled on Woodger because of his charming comic-book styles, giving him freedom to express himself on the design.

Explaining the decision behind choosing Woodger for the artwork, Yo Kimura, art director at TBWA\ Hakuhodo tells The Drum that the agency wanted someone who could bring fun to a large audience with a bit of ‘twist’ and a ‘pop’ feel to the art.

“Woodger’s growing reputation in recent years put him on our radar, and his distinctive and colorful style made him a perfect match for the job,” adds Kimura.

As Woodger was unable to understand or speak the language, the TBWA\Hakuhodo communicated with the artist through his colleagues who could speak the language at his agency. Thankfully for both parties, nothing was lost in translation.

“Artists don’t have language barriers, they communicate through their work,” Kimura explains, adding that Woodger always understood exactly what TBWA\Hakuhodo wanted to achieve and both parties were always on the same page.

Kimura revealed that when the creative team first saw Woodger’s draft, they were surprised at how detailed each character was illustrated because each person had a story; a man that fished a mermaid, each single person, even an octopus enjoying the McDonald’s sweets, a guy showing off his muscles.

“We immediately fell in love with the design and knew that the customers would love it as well,” he adds.

McDonald’s were naturally blown away by Woodger’s final artwork, but the brand was even happier that it excited customers and encouraged them to look deeply into the artwork, says Marika Tani, national marketing at McDonald’s Japan, pointing to how customers posted photos of the tray mat on their own social media channels.

The pictures received comments like ’kawaii’ (cute in Japanese) and ‘very interesting’, while some customers wondered if there was a hidden character in the artwork. “I truly appreciate Dan’s contribution and hard-work to McDonalds’ Japan, adds Tani. “His work enhanced our sweets brand images and created wonderful restaurant experience for our customers.”

The McDonald's brand story has not always been so 'sweet' in Japan, however, as it found itself falling foul to the common error of becoming complacent with its success, eventually losing customers and revenue. With McDonald’s Japan CEO Sarah Casanova at the helm, McDonald's is now seeing continued growth in the market and has a new strategy of pushing innovation and creation at all times.

Shawn Lim

Shawn Lim is a reporter at The Drum, covering industry news around the Asia Pacific region with a focus on Singapore and Southeast Asia. Based in Singapore, he has worked across photography, video and online, covering a range of subjects including current affairs and sports.

Before Game of Thrones, he was a huge Breaking Bad fan. He does CrossFit and yoga to stay healthy.

All by Shawn