Going Global: From Shakespeare to Straplines

Using English straplines in foreign climes may seem counterproductive but, even if the words don't make sense, the message can be very clear.

The globalised world of today needs a global language. In English, it has found that language.

Advertisers have embraced this phenomenon enthusiastically. Many brands now choose to leave key elements of their advertising in English all over the world. The language of Shakespeare and Johnson is now the language of straplines and banners.

But what effect does using an English strapline in a non-English speaking market have? Is it a slap in the face for local culture? Or proof that the advertiser is slap-bang up to date with the networked world of tomorrow?

Does it get people talking about the brand (in whatever language)? Or is it met with incomprehension and indifference?

You have probably spotted from the byline that the creative translation of advertising is our business, so we have a vested interest in the answer to these questions. If we say that local-language adaptations are always more effective, you will think: "Well, they would say that, wouldn't they?"

But, in fact, we wouldn't always say this. Our business is about making specific ads work in specific local cultures. A generalisation such as "foreign language good, English bad" is not very helpful. Often, an English strapline is used because it is seen as the language of the developed world. For example, in former communist countries such as Russia, Western goods have long been seen as superior in quality to domestic alternatives.

In such markets, the mere fact that a brand's strapline is in English sends out a message in itself: exclusivity, quality, snob value. This is the same approach made famous by Audi in the UK. People may not understand what Vorsprung durch Technik means, but they understand that when it comes to automotive engineering, those Germans know their Zwiebeln.

The global English strapline is therefore a popular choice among high-end luxury brands. It should also be pointed out that, in emerging markets, such brands generally aim at the affluent, educated elite - the very people who are most likely to speak English. So the approach is not without its merits.

On the other hand, if the use of English is, in itself, part of the brand message, the law of diminishing returns is obviously at work. If everyone advertises in English to set themselves apart, it ceases to be very differentiating.

Another reason a brand may use an English strapline is that the line in question is deemed "untranslatable". There are countless cases such as this, from Mazda's "zoom zoom" in Russia to Johnnie Walker's "keep walking" in Turkey and Greece.

But just because a line cannot be translated, it does not follow that the brief cannot be solved in other languages. Moreover, if the idea is so specific to the English language that it cannot be translated, then it is also likely that it cannot be fully grasped by non-native speakers of English.

Even in countries where people generally have an excellent command of English, they don't use English in the same way that native speakers do. And standards of English vary greatly around the world. Education is part of this. The effect of (American) English's cultural dominance is another.

In small TV and film markets, it is not worth the expense of dubbing English-language programming into the local language, so it is subtitled instead. As a result, in countries such as Norway and Israel, those endless Friends repeats are free English lessons.

This gives rise to the interesting phenomenon of advertisers using English straplines written by local copywriters. A good example of this would be the Orange strapline from Israel, "have an Orange day", which caught on to the extent that it entered popular slang. Young Israelis sometimes say "have an Orange day" (in Hebrew) as a way of saying goodbye - even though the literal translation makes no sense.

On the other hand, the pitfalls are shown by Jaguar's attempt to crack the German market with the Delphic strapline: "Life by gorgeous." This proved as incomprehensible to Germans as it is to native English speakers.

One can appreciate why, in the fatherland of BMW and Mercedes, Jaguar's British heritage might be an important (and differentiating) element of its brand equity. But if nobody can understand the ad, nobody will understand why they should buy a Jag.

In fact, there is research to suggest that only 15 to 20 per cent of German consumers fully understand the English advertising they are exposed to.

There is also some anecdotal evidence to suggest that as the stock of free-market capitalism has fallen since the credit crunch, English may have lost some of its lustre for advertisers - though, of course, we should be wary of mistaking short-term reactions for long-term trends.

From speaking to our copywriters around the world, it is clear that consumers are used to seeing English in advertising. If the campaign is memorable, but the strapline is not well understood, people simply ignore it and focus on the bits that they do get. You are not going to damage your brand by using an English strapline. It does not disturb, annoy or offend consumers.

It is, as discussed, a convenient short-hand for the internationalism and modernity of a brand. And it offers benefits such as reduced costs and a guaranteed minimum level of brand consistency - it is a safe choice. But, while safe choices offer less risk, the possible rewards are also often lower.

A good strapline should encapsulate the essence of the entire brand. They should be the hardest-working words in the whole campaign. But if it was not created in the target audience's own culture, there is a good chance it will convey a generic, unnuanced message, or no message at all.

The English language is now part, but only a part, of the cultural landscape all around the world. As such, it is one, but only one, of the many weapons in a local copywriter's arsenal.

So an English strapline may sometimes be the right option for a foreign market. But it should never be a default option.

- Guy Gilpin is a director and James Bradley is the head of English copy at Mother Tongue Writers