SUPPLEMENT: EUROPEAN BRANDS; Oversold and over here

Why do most US campaigns alienate the European consumer? David Reed says clients would do well to take heed of cultural differences

Why do most US campaigns alienate the European consumer? David Reed says

clients would do well to take heed of cultural differences

America. Home of the brave and the land of the free. Where, every

evening, the Marlboro cowboy rides down Main Street past the Stars and

Stripes, before popping a Coors in the saloon. Alternatively, it is

where the breakbeats booming from a cut-down Cadillac echo the gunfire

of another gangland drive-by.

Neither of those stereotypes captures the diversity of the US. Yet the

temptation to present an American image when advertising US brands to

Europeans is powerful. After all, the US is one of the few countries

where businesses as well as government offices can display the national

flag with no sense of irony.

So how far can these brands go in exporting their domestic values to the

Continent? Is it possible to translate the American ‘can-do’ spirit into

advertising for American canned goods? Jim Williams, European planning

director at Young and Rubicam, notes: ‘Some certainly want to retain an

American feel. They think being American is part of the appeal of the


He believes that many US corporations also see it as a social principle

to present an American face to the world. It is, after all, still

possible to find company mission statements that list the hierarchy of

staff allegiances as ‘God, family, country and company’ in that order.

But this missionary zeal does not go down well in the Old World. ‘People

in Europe have been around so much longer and the places are

considerably more established that the keen optimism Americans have is

something they are wary of in France, for example,’ Bob Moore, creative

director of Wieden and Kennedy Amsterdam, says. ‘It doesn’t work.’

So can an existing domestic campaign for a US advertiser be re-used

successfully in Europe? Agencies think not. ‘The ideas expressed in an

American way do well over there, but a UK audience finds them

unconvincing and patronising. The tone of voice puts them off,’ Dick

Bloomfield, managing partner at Impact FCA, points out.

Ads for some product categories, however, are more transferable. As

Simon Ratcliffe, account director for Lee Jeans at Grey, says: ‘Jeans

are the American cultural item. You couldn’t be more American.’ In

Europe, the fight for sales is between three major US brands - Levi’s,

Lee and Wrangler - with a host of domestic European makers following

behind. So dominant is the connection between jeans and America, says

Ratcliffe, ‘that you find German brands pretending to be American that

have never been remotely near the place’.

He adds: ‘Playing on that consumer identification between country and

product is at the heart of the brief for the advertising. Even so, the

work needs to take account of consumers’ prejudices. Anything remotely

flag waving, or Uncle Sam-style indoctrination, is a turn off.’

The current Lee Jeans campaign has steered around this problem by

showing construction workers on New York skyscrapers to demonstrate the

‘Jeans that built America’ strapline. The imagery is still undiluted

Americana, but of a gritty, realistic kind, rather than an idealised


For any jeans advertiser working in Europe, the standard has been set by

Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s campaign for Levi’s. This has used a more diverse

set of images of America than are usually allowed by US clients. The

reason why it works so well in Europe, says Simon Anholt, creative

director of World Writers, ‘is because it is what Europeans think the US

is like’.

On the Lee account, the American positioning is simply ‘the brand that

fits’. But this is as much a reflection of the different position jeans

have in the US compared with Europe. According to Ratcliffe: ‘They are a

utility garment which you can buy over there for dollars 20. Here they

are dollars 50 to dollars 60, so you have a completely different view of

their heritage.’

Airlines have fewer qualms about retaining as much as possible of the

domestic advertising concept for their European campaigns.

‘Lots of agencies with experience of US airlines have told clients that

their domestic advertising is wallpaper because a plane is a plane is a

plane,’ Impact FCA’s Bloomfield says. ‘You have got to identify the

benefits and sell them to an audience in a relevant way.’

His agency worked on pan-European campaigns for North West Airlines,

until resigning the account when its sister Publicis agency became

involved with British Airways. The approach it took was ‘a global image

translated locally. You don’t change it, but the way you interpret it is

more relevant,’ he says. Finding analogies of that international

positioning which resonate among European consumers is the major

challenge facing ad agencies with US brand accounts.

With Nike, Wieden and Kennedy fought shy of the obvious route, which was

to view trainers as a fashion item. It has taken a more flexible

approach that aligns major athletes with the brand. Initially, these

were Americans with some level of international recognition, such as the

basketball player, Michael Jordan, but other ads have been produced

using stars from local markets.

‘We don’t hide from the American-ness. We use the same tone, but with

local relevance. In Germany, we have done ads with the Leverkusen

basketball team and the Borussia Mšnchengladbach football team. It is

using the Nike spirit in a way that is relevant to that market,’ Moore


He points out that while the endline, ‘Just do it’, has been retained,

it will be understood in different ways across Europe. ‘What it means is

not necessarily going running every day, it may be walking five times a

week. Whatever is relevant to the European lifestyle,’ Moore adds.

This is an important aspect of the adaptation versus new campaign

argument. What an American company believes its core competency to be

may not be what European consumers perceive. Y&R’s Williams notes that

for Philip Morris, retaining a strong American identity in cigarette

advertising is crucial, because there is an association between the US

and quality tobacco. ‘Russian brands have the same pack, but they could

be made in 15 different factories, all to different standards. So where

things come from is an indication of quality. They know American

Marlboros are better quality,’ he says.

That same quality association, however, cannot be transferred to beer

advertising. While the US is strongly associated with fizzy drinks,

because of Coke and Pepsi, few Europeans, especially Germans, are

convinced about its ability to produce good ales. In fact, many

consumers believe American beers will be like soft drinks. ‘Budweiser

had terrible problems in the UK. It wanted to be a big American brand

dominating the world, and it failed,’ Williams notes.

In Europe, there are considerable variations not just in the positioning

and perception of brands, but also in consumer attitudes generally. Some

of these work in favour of a straightforward import of US ads. Germans

share the American mind-set, which wants logical, rational advertising

with lots of information. Italians tend to respond to sentimentality as

well as mid-western Americans.

But, in general, there is a cultural divide. The problems begin with

language. ‘Americans often find it hard to figure out that English is a

foreign language to foreigners,’ Anholt says. ‘Because English has a

tremendous cachet in most European countries, the temptation is not to

use local languages, even for the endline. With the exception of France,

where it is illegal not to use French, using English will alienate

consumers. In research, people say, ‘If they can’t be bothered to use my

language, I can’t be bothered to buy their product.’’

Voiceovers are just as problematic. Bloomfield notes that most Europeans

dislike being sold to in an American accent because ‘it doesn’t gel’

with their perceptions. Soundtracks, however, meet little resistance,

since the same, chiefly American, artists dominate the European charts.

Across product categories, the different nature of the European market

has been recognised and US-originated campaigns dropped in favour of

local ones. But the temptation still remains to go with what has already

worked in America. Settling these conflicting views can result in some

curious hybrids, like the Blockbuster Video commercials.

Chances are that the argument will have to be rethought for every

account. Despite research and experiences to the contrary, many American

clients retain a belief that their worldview is irresistible. As Anholt

points out: ‘For the majority of US companies, Europeans are just

Americans who haven’t left yet.’


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