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Learning to laugh in another language: tailoring humor in marketing to different countries

How can marketers translate their creative across different countries and markets? / Priscilla Du Preez via Unsplash

Comedy has always been one of the hardest things to land in international marketing campaigns, bringing with it the peril of cultural insensitivity. Tim Bonnet, president of agency group Unlimited, takes a look at how to do it right.

Sometimes adding a comedic element to marketing campaigns works well in all languages. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Human emotions are universal, and neuroscience has shown us that brain patterns are too. But cultural and linguistic differences present marketers with a conundrum when it comes to amusing people from different locations. As with many elements of global marketing, there’s a delicate balancing act between maintaining consistency, offering choice and appealing to diverse markets.

Emotion is key to speaking the right language

We’ve all seen those hilariously bad dubbed ads. They don’t work – not just because the slogans are poorly translated, but because they aren’t culturally relevant and don’t take into account factors such as local language, cultural nuances, differences in brand perception, product emphasis, media and performance planning.

Creativity and rational thinking work in different ways; emotion is the thread that drives behavioral change and connects brands with audiences. Therefore, any global campaign needs to have a human-first approach. This is only possible by having specialists on the ground who are deeply rooted in local cultures.

But you can’t focus on emotion alone; it’s important to combine a rational message with the right emotional messaging. The human brain can’t handle decoding complicated brand messaging or communication executions (it’s too busy keeping you alive.)

To create closer relationships with global audiences, start with local understanding fueled by emotional unity and empathy. And make the most of research (including neuroscience research) to understand and cater to nuance.

Using humor to make a connection

Humor is a vital weapon in the arsenal of successful marketing agencies and marketing activations. People love to laugh and share content they think is funny with their friends and colleagues. Brands who succeed in creating funny campaigns are seen to be more relatable and trustworthy; they will be remembered in their target audience’s mind, therefore improving loyalty.

However, the downsides of getting humor wrong can be catastrophic. Making the wrong joke at the wrong time can make a brand look amateurish, exploitative, offensive and tasteless. Afterward, they won’t be taken seriously.

Humor and joke-telling vary drastically from country to country and even region to region. For example, audiences in the UK love sarcasm that might not translate to an American audience. And while consumers in one country may be amused by satire or slapstick, they may even offend people in another.

You cannot ‘copy and paste’ between regions. A strategic alliance between local agencies around the world provides clients with a genuinely global offering based on locally-rooted insights. That’s crucial in today’s fragmented and fast-evolving media landscape.

A great example of this use of local agencies is the multinational electronics firm LG working with our partners at Serviceplan Group to deliver a pan-European campaign. The campaign portrayed how LG’s technology could improve customers’ daily lives, working to strengthen brand identity in Germany, France and the UK. It tweaked and adapted messages to cater to cultural differences in each nation, taking into consideration factors such as brand perception, performance planning, product emphasis and local language. Neuroscience results demonstrated that with the local changes it was one of the best-performing ads. Based on human behavior, the GSR results showed the strong creative, combined with engagement and viewer’s attention, drove action.

Localize to specialize

Appealing to different markets within the same campaign is increasingly critical and potentially challenging.

Language is one overriding challenge – and tricky to get right without a local partner. Ineffective localization can result in the time and money you put into products, product descriptions, social media activity and website content being wasted as they fail to resonate with entire audiences. That will impact your entire marketing strategy.

This informs our tri-party global alliance between Serviceplan, Hakuhodo and Unlimited, helping us to put local human understanding at the heart of our multi-market work. We have also learned that these relationships are founded on mutual trust and respect, which is only built over time.

For the marketing world to be truly inclusive and connected, we need to both gain locally-rooted insights and establish truths that are universally relevant and aspirational – and have a human understanding, always.

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