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How to Crack the Asian Ad Industry Businesses must make an effort to stay updated despite geographic distance and time zone differences

By Kazu Takiguchi

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Advertising success in Europe does not automatically equate to advertising success in Asia. Perhaps more than anywhere else, cultural understanding can make or break a marketing campaign, meaning advertisers need to be careful. This is especially true when entire campaigns from multinational companies are lifted and repeated from one region to the next.

This can be dangerous for brands without proper oversight. Bad translations and cultural misunderstandings stand out as the most common occurrences. For example, German automaker Audi apologised over an advertisement it aired in China that was slammed as sexist for showing a bride-to-be being roughly examined like a piece of livestock.

If marketers plan to take their best performing ads in the US and run them as is in China, the campaign is doomed. Here are three things to look out for to crack the cultural code of Asian ads industry.

More than Words, But Meaning

First, make sure the words mean what they say. This may sound simple, but adverts can certainly get lost in translation when foreign companies move to Asia. Companies typically get an online translator to convert the text in their ads to an Asian language, with an end result which might sound acceptable linguistically, yet carry a completely different meaning for locals in another country.

A marketing campaign from Kentucky Fried Chicken is an ideal example. The fast food company's slogan in English reads "finger-lickin' good". When translated into Chinese, however, the meaning changes completely, "We'll eat your fingers off". Clearly, not so appetizing.

Further, font and typography matters. Similar to how Comic Sans in generally frowned upon in the English-speaking world, certain fonts can have negative associations to them in the Asian community. In short, it is important for any and every company to do their research when it comes to words. Do not simply rely on the Internet to take your slogan and translate it into the native language, because the result may differ entirely.

One Size Doesn't Fit All Markets

Second, it is integral to keep in mind that Asia is not a homogenous region. While stock image libraries might give the impression that Asians look the same with identical tastes and preferences, this could not be further from the truth.

This is a continent and needs to be approached as such. Whether the marketer is intending to launch their product in China, Japan or South Korea, each country is a separate market that needs to be tackled individually, and that's even before factoring for nuances between cities and regions within a country.

An advertising campaign produced for Singapore tourism by a Filipino agency shows where results can go awry. The three-minute promotional video was supposedly well received in the Philippines, but lambasted into virality after it was made known to locals in the home country. Simply put: it was a cheap, unimpressive production which viewers regarded as "cringeworthy and full of cliched dialogue." It may have impressed abroad, but flopped at home.

Choosing the platforms to run the ads on, for instance, should be country-specific. For example, it is common knowledge that WeChat is the way to go for reach in China, given that Facebook and Google are not available. Does this mean it is safe to invest the bulk of media spend on Facebook in other parts of the continent then? Not necessarily. Twitter is actually larger than Facebook in Japan, while messenger app Kakao has a sizeable following not to be overlooked in South Korea.

Relevant Today, Redundant Tomorrow

Third, and most importantly for longevity, is that ads best connect when they resonate with their target audience. This is where cultural understanding becomes much more than sensitivity, it becomes integral to the importance of an advert's success. This requires each and every marketing firm to not simply advertise within their market, but to understand the continent they operate in. This means monitoring the latest trends and developments to advertise accordingly.

Businesses must make an effort to stay updated despite geographic distance and time zone differences. This does take effort and energy, but is preferable to making a marketing faux pas.

One only need look at two differing approaches to Chinese society and its view on "leftover women" to see what works and what does not.

The term "shengnu" - or "leftover women" - is a common reference to Chinese women who hit the age of 30 and are still single. This status is heavily stigmatized in the country, with the perceived "shame" something that has been debated by society. However, two companies recently advertised around the issue with very different results. For instance, Swedish multinational Ikea faced heavy criticism for its marketing campaign which depicted a mother scolding her daughter for not "bringing home a boyfriend" to meet her parents.

On the flip side, Japanese skincare brand SK-II found new customers in the country when it tackled the stigma in a sensitive campaign. The video advert, which went viral on Chinese social media and summoned an outcry, depicted women over their lifetimes with a countdown to the age of 30. It questioned the notion in a poignant, emotional way - and in a way which connected with its core audience.

Tackling social stigmas and controversies is tricky no matter the cultural context, but SK-II did their homework and followed it up with an engaging and effective advertisement. Perhaps if Ikea paid attention to SK-II's campaign, they might not have made the mistake. The issue here is that Ikea perpetuated the controversial attitude, while SK-II challenged it.

Of course, Asian companies themselves can miss the mark and inadvertently shoot themselves in the foot with insensitive or downright inappropriate ads. However, it is increasingly Western companies who are trying to find success in the market - and the ones who are most prone to cultural gaffes. It is these companies, who certainly have enough money and resources to avoid such cultural insensitivities, who must prioritize local culture and values if they want a slice of the region's ever-growing advertising pie.

Kazu Takiguchi

CEO-founder, Creadits


Kazu is founder and CEO of Creadits, a single global marketplace for advertising talent, using a unified currency--Creadits. Creadits are used globally to acquire anything required to start advertising - graphic design, video shoots, writing, campaign management, training, even data.  

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