Universal truths cross booze borders

Caroline Lovell looks at what makes a global alcohol campaign appeal across cultural boundaries.

Guinness...communicates with people all over the world
Guinness...communicates with people all over the world

In China, the a la mode drink is a glass of red wine with a dash of Coca-Cola. In Singapore, however, they like to glug Guinness out of shared jugs, as though it were Sangria.

As consumer behaviour shifts dramatically around the world, and emerging markets become increasingly sophisticated, is it time for global alcohol campaigns to change their tactics?

Bacardi Global Brands thinks so. Only last month, it called a review of its £100 million global advertising roster, citing changing patterns of consumer behaviour.

Although BGB declined to elaborate further on its decision, the view in adland is that it is looking to shift its focus from the West, which expects brands to be socially responsible, to the emerging markets of Russia, China and India, where an insatiable appetite for Western premium brands meets growing disposable incomes.

It's impossible to say how different markets around the world consume alcohol - or media - without making huge generalisations, but many people agree that these markets are "emerging" faster than ever expected.

If this is the case, some have speculated that many alcohol companies want to shift a larger chunk of their global media spend into those markets, use more digital or mobile advertising to reach out to and better target young people, or even move the lead creative global agency into one of those territories.

But, whether this is the case or not, would the changes in consumer behaviour around the world affect a global campaign? The consensus among industry leaders is that it would not.

According to leading planners and creatives, the one quality all successful global campaigns share is that they are based on universal human truths that transcend geographical borders.

For Nick Kendall, Bartle Bogle Hegarty's global strategy director, universal human truths are the "gold dust" on which ideas for global campaigns are built, regardless of cultural nuances or differences between the markets.

"It's not about single executions that run around the world; it's about big ideas that achieve focus through universal truths. Once you've established that focus, you can flex it to any market or global business challenge," Kendall says.

However, identifying that universal human truth is an "extra- ordinary challenge", one senior planner adds.

"You have to learn as much as you can about each of the markets and then put it to one side. Think about what unites the target audience, otherwise you can get blinded by the nuances and differences and won't see the core similarities between the markets," he says.

This notion of finding a universal human truth echoes through the corridors of advertising agencies like a broken record.

But whether consumer behaviour is changing or not, Matthew Bull, the chief creative officer of Lowe Worldwide and chief executive of Lowe Bull SA, believes it cannot "deeply" affect advertising if the brand has strong values and promises. He says: "It might affect what you show, but it doesn't affect the message you put across. It's important to tap into a universal value system where emotions such as falling in love or being admired are relevant regardless of what continent you live on."

Bull points to Johnnie Walker's "keep walk ing" as an example of a global campaign that talks to a human being first and a person in a geographical location second.

However, he warns that agencies have to be flexible about how they get that message across in different markets or risk creating an "ineffectually expensive" global campaign.

This can be seen in the simple fact that there are actually hardly any truly global alcohol campaigns such as BGB's last Bacardi work or Diageo's Smirnoff ad.

It is a point Adrian Holmes, Y&R's executive creative director for EMEA, makes when he likens global alcohol ad campaigns that ignore local nuances and variations to CNN's global weather forecast, which he describes as "a crude instrument".

"For a simple life, it's great if we can come up with one universal idea, but quite often it doesn't work. The ideal position is that you have one creative idea that can be re-expressed around the world taking account of local cultural influences," Holmes says.

But this is where the situation becomes a little bit tricky for booze advertising. Trying to create a campaign void of idiom, local cultural references or personalities - and that abides by local alcohol regulations - is pretty challenging, Holmes explains.

So it comes as no surprise that global drinks advertising is sometimes seen as bland. "Traditionally, when you heard the words 'global campaign', hearts sink under the suspicion that they've got to create the lowest common denominator ad everyone understands but no-one likes," Holmes says.

However, he dubs regulation "the mother-in-law of invention"; he believes that the various restrictions and requirements of a global campaign can result in more interesting and powerful work.

"Regulation spurs creativity. We often curse the constraints but they force us to think more laterally and ingeniously," he says.

And, for Kendall, the argument over whether regulation hampers creativity is "well-rehearsed nonsense", because the industry has always worked within regulation, he says.

But JWT's global planning director, Guy Murphy, has his own view on how agencies should create effective global campaigns. For Murphy, the "default model" is to create a single ad campaign that is adapted around the world. This, he says, is the wrong model.

Instead, he thinks the industry should aim for "structure-neutral thinking", similar to "media-neutral thinking", to break down the rigidities of global advertising so that a global alcohol campaign can be one or several that are executed in different markets, depending on the brand and how it is consumed in that market.

"However, the way you choose to divide up the world is crucial," Murphy says. "It's a skill that could make or break a campaign - especially in the drinks market."

But is it possible to divide the planet into neat little chunks? Murphy thinks the map should be redrawn in terms of how the brand shapes the world, such as by sensuality, rather than geographical boundaries or the client's global structure.

Kendall, however, believes it is more "fruitful" and sophisticated to split the world up in terms of the business challenges faced in different markets by that drink.

But, whichever side you stand on, the argument does not appear to move far away from the basic fact that successful global campaigns, whether for alcoholic drinks or otherwise, appear to revolve around universal human truths, regardless of how the map is drawn.

"Once you have a big, fat, great idea, you can adapt it around the world and adapt the media you use to make it relevant. That is the definition of a great idea; one that can adapt and express itself according to the time and place," Kendall says.