Don’t make life complicated

Finding the right treatment for a global brief is a
challenge for any copywriter, but the simplest
solutions are often the most successful, says
Mark Shaw

Whether it’s down to cost-savings or the desire for consistency, clients are increasingly expecting their new brand, or latest campaign, to hit the spot with audiences across geographic and national boundaries. Products have to be understood in all countries across Europe, advertising has to turn on the target audience in Paris and Peru, and brands must resonate with everyone, wherever they may live on this rapidly shrinking planet.

We can all understand why this is, and there are many ways of tackling these lovely, juicy, large-scale design and copywriting challenges. These briefs can be exciting beyond belief – representing huge canvases to work on, with enormous scope and scale, but also creating a potentially massive set of obstacles.

The problem these briefs present is that they can go to our heads, and instead of taking our normal, considered, experienced approach to the task, we revert to our naive undergraduate days.

We see complexity where things could be simple, and we tackle this with convoluted solutions, when, in fact, we should simply stick to our proven methods.

I undertook a brief for an international marketing and recruitment campaign for one of the UK’s leading universities. This institution is proud it can attract students from around the world, who achieve excellent results, and it had some really compelling stories and case studies that could appear in the campaign.

It wanted 48-sheet billboards for the Far East, Europe and the US, supported by a brochure and website – a truly global opportunity to reach an enormous audience.

Instinctively, I asked the client’s representative, who regularly travelled to all of these regions, to tell me about the nature of the different audiences, because the university would have to shape its messages to suit Chinese, Australian, Russian, European, African and American students, and each group would require its own treatment. I wasn’t expecting the reply.

‘Think of it this way,’ he explained. ‘We’re talking to young people, aged 18 to 25, who are looking to study hard to get their careers started. You want me to tell you what they are like in all of these different countries? It’s easy. I’ve met them. They’re really into their iPods, they wear Levi’s, they eat McDonalds, they watch MTV, they want to be cool, they want to make good money and have nice holidays. They’re the same wherever I go.’ The penny dropped.

Simple, really. We weren’t looking at five or six different treatments, but one campaign. It would need to be translated, so it had to be a very simple, clear concept.

The more specific it was, and the more cultural references it included, the more obscure it would be to the broader audience.

The final treatment was based around an image of party balloons, rising, with Polaroid images of students tied to string hanging from them, and the strapline ‘We’re going up in the world’. It translated easily into every language and the imagery appealed to these bright and ambitious young students; to our surprise, we discovered that balloons were also a sign of good luck and prosperity in the Far East.

Managing the design was as straightforward as a UK-only campaign, except in India, where they hand-painted the billboards individually, leaving plenty of room for artistic interpretation.

I’ve just written a textbook on copywriting for the international audience. As part of my research, I interviewed a dozen American copywriters and a dozen from the UK, probing for the peculiarities of their work, their techniques, the demands made of them and the specifics of writing for the American audience.

To my surprise, I discovered that communicating to the American marketplace is just the same as to the UK equivalent. Each writer takes their own approach, and creates their own original solutions, but the core principles are identical: focus on the benefits, not just the features; talk to the audience about themselves, not about you; promise them exciting discoveries and deliver these promises; and don’t clutter your compelling message with too many details.

When you boil it down, we’re all the same, wherever we happen to live. We respect and respond to clear and compelling communication, and we don’t want to be told what to do, or to have to work hard to get the point.

Next time you take an international brief, get excited, but don’t make it complicated.

Dos and Don’ts:


• Relate to individual readers

• Stick to proven methods

• Keep your message simple

• Focus on the benefits


• Be dazzled by global scope

• Use specific cultural references

• Include too much detail

• Try to please everyone

Mark Shaw is director of Standing Rock Creative Consultancy and author of Copywriting: Successful Writing for Design, Advertising and Marketing, to be published by Laurence King on 2 March, priced £17.95

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