Here is a brief summary of some of the issues surrounding international advertising. I’ve tried to keep the discussion below conceptual so as to provide a meaningful framework for evaluating the significance of the research data in the decision-making process.

I. Business Issues

In broad terms, there are four potentially competing business objectives that must be kept in balance as the brand manages its international advertising.

• Brand Building by Speaking With One Voice

• Economies of Scale in Creative Production

• Maximizing Local Effectiveness

• Speed of Implementation

The main reason to do advertising at all is to build a brand. A global brand is one that stands for the same thing pretty much everywhere. While this does not necessarily require that identical advertising executions be used everywhere, it does require that the advertising communicates the same meaning, in terms of strategic messages and brand values, everywhere. In short, the brand needs to speak with one voice.

Advertising has to operate within given financial constraints. In general, money saved in the cost of producing advertising executions can be put towards media buys to ensure that target audiences actually gets an opportunity to see the advertising. The second objective, therefore, is to achieve economies of scale in the cost of creative production by re-using the same executions with minimal changes from one country to another. On the surface, this objective appears to line up with the first-in reality, the same execution can work differently in different countries.

With the world now moving at Internet speed, it is important to be able to project brand communications around the world quickly, in a highly coordinated way. Having common executions makes this easier.

The most efficient advertising is advertising that makes each member of the target audience feel like the commercial is a personalized message sent directly to them. This is advertising the target audience is most likely to pay attention to, most likely to find relevant and emotionally engaging and most likely to act on. Advertising that is developed in-country may have a home-court advantage in terms of how it scores on measures of performance—though we have also seen that this too is not always the case. The challenge of managing international advertising is to make the correct trade-offs between in-country efficiency versus cross-country efficiency.

II. Strategic Options

A. Importing Executions

Produce commercials in one country and have other countries import them for use in their local markets. The logic of this strategy is two-fold. First, economies of scale are created and speed of implementation is enhanced, by only having to produce one execution that can be used in multiple markets around the world. Second, and perhaps more important, the company can speak with one voice and project a consistent brand image around the world, hopefully leading to the creation of a global brand image.

The risks associated with this “command and control” approach arise from the fact that not all advertising can be expected to work equally well from one country to another. Failure can take various forms. First, advertising imported from one country to another can “backfire” by running afoul of culture sensitivities in countries into which it is imported. Second, trying to develop “politically correct” executions that work everywhere can lead to bland advertising that does not maximize local effectiveness. Third, an American-centric approach reminds one of the famous New Yorker’s View of the World cartoon which in the long run can lead to a loss of perspective on the constantly changing world of opportunities facing the brand. At the very least, with this strategy a certain symmetry should apply. An execution that has been found to work very well in a foreign market should be a candidate for re-execution in the US market.

B. Local Production

Produce commercials that are entirely unique to the country in which they are aired. This logic of this local empowerment strategy is that the in-country manager is closest to the market and therefore is most likely to be aware of cultural nuances and market conditions. In theory this leads to advertising with maximum local effectiveness.

In reality, the risk of this strategy is that the brand identity that is created will diverge over time from the brand being created in other local markets—i.e., this strategy is fundamentally at odds with the goal of a global brand. This strategy also fails to create economies of scale for creative production.

C. Importing Ideas

It is the idea between an execution that gives it it’s meaning. If the goal of building a global brand is to make the brand stand for the same thing around the world then customers and potential customers everywhere should associate the same ideas with the brand. An execution and an idea are not the same thing. “The Seven Samurai” and “The Magnificent Seven” are the same idea executed for a Japanese and an American audience. In other words, there is a third strategy for managing global advertising. Finding ideas that work globally—i.e., an “idea that travels”-may possibly be the best strategy of achieving a balance for all three business objectives. First, using the same idea globally is a way of speaking with one voice. Second, finding good ideas is a significant part of the cost of creative development and can contribute to economies of scale in the cost of finding effective advertising ideas. And third, re-executing in a local market is a way of making sure that the idea has maximum appeal to the local market. For this last point it is important to understand that the advertising execution is a non-linear variable in the marketing mix. By that, I mean small changes in executions can have large effects in terms of the overall performance of an ad. In contrast, media weight tends to be a linear variable—in other words, to increase the impact of a media buy by ten percent you have to roughly increase the media expenditure by ten percent. Consequently, the amount of money spent on re-executing a strong advertising idea in a local market may produce a greater return than putting the same amount of money in the media plan.

III. International Barriers To Universal Executional Effectiveness

A. Executional Variables

These are some executional variables that can affect how well a particular execution translates from one country to another. (Viewed another way, if these factors appear to be central to the execution—i.e., taking them out fundamentally changes the commercial—then chances are you do not have a big or global advertising idea.)

1. Complex Language

Ads that are heavy on copy or highly abstract verbal ideas are not likely to travel well. Ads with stand-up presenters are likely to fall into this category.

2. Dialogue

Does the dialogue carry the story or do the visuals? A good way to think of this issue is in silent film terms. The more the story can be conveyed visually the more likely the execution will translate. Dialogue heavy stories require a heavy use of subtitles that can be challenging to viewers in terms of their speed of information processing.

3. Ethnic Characters

There are clearly biases in many countries against members of other races or ethnic groups. Sensitivity to these issues is clearly called for in developing global executions.

4. Local Celebrities

For executions that use a celebrity as a celebrity (if you’re only using a celebrity ask yourself why you are paying a premium price for this person), it is important to gauge the limits of their fame. For example, television stars are less likely than movie stars to be international celebrities.

5. Business Roles

Different cultures conduct business in different ways and so the business roles that characters are shown filling does not always translate well. For example, showing a female manager in charge may not play as well in countries where women have not risen in management ranks as much as they have in the US.

6. Culturally Inappropriate Cues

Props or other objects in the execution may take on unexpected meanings in other cultures.

7. Local Settings

Unless it is intentional, it probably does not help to have “made in the USA” stamped all over the execution.

8. Humor

Visual or “slapstick” humor is likely to travel better than humor based on wordplay.

9. Music

Music tastes vary widely and musical trends travel around the world at different rates. Therefore, music-driven executions may test differently from one country to another.

B. Strategic Constraints

Strategic factors, as well as executional variables, can also affect how well adver- tising ideas travel.

Obviously, a brand’s positioning is defined with reference to its competitive set. The competitive set, and the brand’s position within that set, may vary as a function of geography—e.g., you might be a market leader in one country, a minor player in another. Therefore, commercials designed to communicate strategic messages that reinforce a particular positioning can be expected to vary in performance internationally as a function of the changes in the market context.

IV. Keys to International Advertising Effectiveness: What Have We Learned

A. The Ameritest® Model of Advertising is Global

By this we mean that regardless of whether or not you are airing it in the US, Europe or Asia/Pacific, an effective commercial can be defined as one that gets the Attention of its target audience, makes an impression of the Brand, and Motivates interest in doing business with the company. Moreover, regardless of which country you are talking about, the kinds of executions that we have found get the attention of the audience are those that reward the viewer for the thirty seconds of time you are asking them to give you—by entertaining them, doing something they like and something that is different from anything else they’ve seen before. And regardless of country, the way to motivate that audience is to communicate a relevant, believable and brand-differentiating selling proposition. In other words, by validating the model with international data, we have shown that we do not need to re-invent, in each country, the research methods we have developed for bringing discipline to the advertising process. Thus, while it may not be possible to always create universal commercial executions for global brand building, we can apply one universal standard of quality for controlling the process.

B. What Has Worked So Far

Brand image is determined with reference to the self—the I of the customer. In other words the product becomes a brand when it becomes “my product”. The warmth and intimacy of the brand relationship is created in a variety of ways, from real experiences with the company to “virtual experiences” created by advertising.

Our content analysis of nearly a hundred international commercials, suggests that the following types of executions are superior in terms of their ability to attract the attention of the target audience:

• Focus on one idea

• From the customer point of view

• Utilizing humor

• Utilizing drama

• With lots of structure—i.e., stories

• Using characters

• In well-defined roles

C. Dealing With Problems of Today (not the future)

This type of advertising, focusing on ideas or (universal) stories dealing with real human values, pays off in the long run compared to “technique” oriented ads that characterize so much hi-tech advertising. The challenge, however, is to generate this kind of advertising in a form that speaks to audiences around the world. In other words, it requires genuine insight into the human character.


Young, Charles, “Researcher as Teacher” Quirk’s Marketing Research Review, March 2001.

Young, Charles, “One Size Fits All” A global Model for Diagnostic Prestesting of TV Commercials,” presented at ESOMAR Rome Conference, 2001.

Young, Charles, “The Visual Language of Global Advertising,” Admap Magazine, April 2003.