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The Problems with Global Ads (Especially for the Little Guy)

As the great Canadian folk singer Joni Mitchell wrote: I've looked at life from both sides now. When I was a smaller-market Client Researcher for two multinational CPG manufacturers in Canada, I was often pressured to forgo local creative and adopt global creative platforms to save on production and keep strategies aligned. Now, as a smaller-market Research Consultant, I am often the one who encourages clients to determine where they can happily leverage global creative efficiencies instead of producing local ads.

My experience is not unusual. Creative platforms almost invariably flow from big, well-developed markets to smaller ones. However, reliance on global creative can come at a price; companies can often spend millions on media for global creative content that is not effective in local markets. Pursuing a global campaign may be efficient—it ensures consistent messaging etc.—but that does not mean it will get more consumers to buy your product. Validating the local effectiveness of existing global platforms—and if they are not effective, then investing in local advertising—is often a more efficient use of budget.

The Elephant in the Room

Sometimes great ads transfer very well from one country to the next. Early in my client-side career, I travelled from Canada to Greece to oversee a global product study and visit our local office to see what marketing strategies I might be able to adapt for the Canadian market. After all, Greece was really driving category growth for this particular throat lozenge brand. Ironically, the first ad on their reel convinced me that they had been airing translated Canadian creative quite successfully.

In The Global Brand¹, Millward Brown's Chief Global Analyst, Nigel Hollis, outlines five universal benefits of employing global creative:

  1. Consistency of Message
  2. Risk Management
  3. Production Cost Savings
  4. Management Cost Savings
  5. Globalization of Media

Although these are compelling reasons to adopt global advertising platforms, at one recent presentation, the elephant in the room was identified by a client who added a sixth reason for employing global creative—because the head office told us to. The client's quip resulted in a good laugh, but it also begged the question of when and how local creative should challenge such orders from headquarters.

The Truth: Ads Rarely Travel Well

In 2005, Millward Brown partnered with Ogilvy & Mather to examine a global database of almost 24,000 ads. The teams identified over 500 ads that ran in more than one country and that were in the top five percent of our database for both impact (enjoyment, branding, and involvement) and persuasion in their initial markets. However, we found that only 11 percent of these ads remained "Exceptional" in another market. In fact, 40 percent performed at "Average" or "Below Average" when aired elsewhere.

In The Global Brand², Hollis identifies some of the key reasons behind why even exceptional brands do not travel well:

Brand Status – Brands have different levels of equity and development across markets.

Category Development – The size or life stage of a category can vary between countries.

Clutter – The sheer volume of TV ads running in-market brings down the performance of any given creative.

Kinds of Advertising Consumers Are Used to – Consumers in another country may be accustomed to different advertising approaches.

Cultural Differences – Issues like levels of individualism and gender roles can differ between cultures.

Consumer Identification – Ethnicity and socioeconomic factors can also influence receptivity to any given ad.

These factors have a much greater impact on an ad's ability to travel than performance in its first country and should always be considered before global creative is employed, particularly in a smaller market.

Similar Regions; Similar Ads

Millward Brown has been able to map clusters of culturally similar regions by crossing two global indices—The United Nations Development Program's Human Development Index from 2010 (which assesses the overall level of market development of each country) and an indexing of Geert Hofstede's work on cultural dimensions (which identifies five dimensions to assist in differentiating cultures).

When we combined development and culture indicators, we found that Canada was closely associated with the US, the UK, Australia, and Germany. An analysis of our global Link™ database showed similar shared characteristics of successful ads in these markets, with the closest similarities between ads in English Canada and the US.

The results of such a broad analysis might increase our confidence in the ability of American ads to perform well in Canada. However, to get the best bang for our creative buck, we need to thoroughly understand the differences between successful ads in these markets and the differences between the markets themselves.

Canada and the US: A Study in Differences

The Advertising
Ads in both countries share fast pacing, humor, similar moods, and the use of animals (who doesn't like puppies and kittens?), but successful Canadian ads are much more likely to use nostalgia or vignettes, while American ads are more likely to include the presence of a celebrity. This difference is important; our research shows that the relevance of a celebrity to a market and that celebrity's fit with the brand are the two major success factors of an endorsement. For example, which would have more impact in Canada—an endorsement from New England quarterback Tom Brady or a story about Canadian and two-time Olympic champion Sidney Crosby learning how to play ice hockey?

Social Values
Ad similarities aside, Canada and the US exhibit different societal values. Environics Research has been following the large gap in perceptions of household gender roles in Canada and the US for a number of years. As recently as 2007, 48 percent of Americans surveyed agreed with the statement, "the father of the family must be master in his own house," compared to only 22 percent of Canadians.³ Perhaps this gap in perception can be explained through social and demographic differences such as broader acceptance of same-sex marriage, lower marriage rates, lower affiliation with a religion, and a different multicultural construct overall. Regardless, ads featuring "Dad the Provider" and "Mom the PTA Volunteer" might not play as well in Canada as they would in the US.

Levels of advertising acceptance also differ between the two countries. The great David Ogilvy claimed to want to buy almost everything he saw advertised, and the data from Environics Research suggest that many Americans feel the same way. In fact, 36 percent of Americans agree "it is very likely that if a product is widely advertised, it will be a good product." Only 19 percent of Canadians would concur. Millward Brown's latest global AdReaction 2014 study supports this point; 49 percent of our American sample claims to have a favorable reaction to TV ads, but this was shared by only 36 percent of Canadians. In essence, Canadians appear to be less accepting of and less motivated by advertising, creating yet another hurdle for foreign content.

The Same Difference
For the final part of our analysis, we looked to our own local database of ads tested in both countries. We identified almost 40 ads and observed that global patterns of ad transference seem to hold true.

About one third of the ads fell into different tertiles for our effectiveness measure of Short-Term Sales Likelihood (which accounts for both breakthrough and persuasion), and about half fell into a different tertile for Enjoyment (a key driver of ad efficiency). In both of these cases, the American ads performed worse in Canada. There is little point in saving on production costs if the effectiveness of your media spend is cut nearly in half.

An Efficient Use of Resources
There are some compelling reasons to consider US creative for Canada, and a greater proportion of strong American ads will succeed in Canada than will fail. However, if the motivation to import is driven by saving money, then it is critical to consider the size of the media budget versus that for production. If one third of "slam dunks" miss the net, then a considerable percentage of working dollars will not have been invested efficiently at all. Given that larger American production budgets sometimes allow for multiple executions around a strategy, checking these ads with new consumers to determine which will provide the best return for valuable media investment is advisable.

The Little Guys

Those of us in smaller markets should think carefully about how we handle global creative pressures. It doesn't help to petulantly insist that only local creative should be considered. The Canadian Link database has four of its top ten ads originating in the US. It also doesn't help to blindly air creative without testing it for local relevance. We recently tested three US ads for a local client, and their effectiveness was in the opposite order of the US results. Regardless of whether I sit on the client- or consultant-side of the business, I always advocate an investment in testing before betting the farm. In the end, ads that are effective in your local market not only boost sales but are also the best use of budget.

¹ Nigel Hollis. The Global Brand. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

² Nigel Hollis. The Global Brand. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

³ Data courtesy of Environics Research.