Back to Blog
Internationalisation in Marketing

Internationalization. Know where you go!

internationalisation Feb 03, 2021

By Chris McPartlin DIBA, M.A. (hons.) - TML Member

When I was a young child, internationalisation was German, English and French. For many brands, companies and players this was also the case. 

With those three languages you could move on the international stage quite nicely. As a private person as much as a company that was completely sufficient. 

Today our stage has broadened, widened and extended exponentially. We think globally! Well.... Do we?

Launching a brand, product or service seems so much easier today with channels like social media, the internet of things and all the other possibilities out there. Be reminded, back in the 90s print, Out Of Home and TV ads were the key channels to push your idea.


Many failed and still fail. Internationalisation puts pressure on all departments and functions of the company: Logistics, Legal, Operations, Sales, CRM, Compliance, R&D and Production.

I see your eyebrows raising and the question: Where is the big "M" in this? Marketing is the spider in every company. At least it should be! Marketing is or should be the most networked department with one foot in every department, even controlling, yes!

So, when it comes to internationalisation, what about Marketing?

Brand names, CD (Corporate Design), CI (Corporate Identity) are big factors you will want to get right. Don't get me wrong, please. We are not pointing the finger here as that is always the easiest way to attract attention and not offer any real insight into how to get it right.  The thing is though: It makes things more comprehensible.

Learning from the mistakes of others might be the formula of this article. 

What am I getting at?

Brand! Let's look at a few, shall we?

When MITSUBISHI launched an absolutely amazing Product called the "Pajero" everybody cheered them. Everybody?

Not really as the Spanish speaking countries cringed instantly. Now, "Pajero" in Spanish is nothing else than a "W*nker", excuse the language. 


How does this happen? No or not well-done Marketing or whoever was ultimately responsible for that name. Do your research. Invest in a competent partner to check the meaning of your Brand or product name.

You think this is a one off? No!

When TOYOTA launched the MR2, a fantastic car in itself and really successful in most markets, the French markets just wouldn't take to this sporty mid-engined car. Why? "MR2", in French phonetically, sounds like the French word "Merde". Not exactly favourable.

When you spend millions for a product development and launch, probably the worst scenario is to find out you just missed the cultural fine tuning for some markets.

Not quite as bad but still a massive blow for any global company are campaigns that just get it completely wrong. In the 1980s Mercedes Launched the W 124 E-class model showing a Caucasian businessman arriving in an obviously Arabic setting. Stressed by the hustle and bustle in the airport, he heads towards his rental car taking notice of a local, sitting by a wall. The expression on the Western European's face plus his entire behaviour throughout the advert caused an uproar and caused Mercedes to remove the clip from all media. Luckily (or maybe not), nowadays the net doesn't forget and so we can watch this slip up again and again and learn from the mistakes.

I can hear you saying: Yes, Chris, but we know all this. Then, if we all know it, why does it continue happening?  People, especially Marketeers, and C-level Management, develop a kind of “brand blindness”: “The Brand is the world”, not the world the stage for the brand. Now this holds some crucial risks that evidently go wrong at times and if they do, it usually gets very expensive. Try to avoid covering local, national cultures with your brand image or the perception you have of your brand or product. A CD and / or a CI, even the Product or service you are marketing into a new part of the globe, might have to be “tuned” to be a cultural and geographical fit for the target group in this region.

Didn't we always say: The customer comes first? We want his money, we want his loyalty and of course we want all customers to be so happy with what we have supplied that they talk, write, post, share and blog positively about us and our product or service all the time.

So, if we think about this “relationship” between our customers and us, why do issues like this following one happen?

Volkswagen launched the new Golf by showing a big hand snapping and flicking a Black gentleman around the car and into a Hotel.  

Even worse, the letters for "Der neue Golf" appeared one by one and formed the N-word. This marked such a brutal mistake that I actually believed at the time that this must have been done on purpose to sabotage VW.

Now, why does it still happen then. Even better, how do we avoid it?  

Know the group of people and culture you are selling to.

When COORS developed a new claim for its beer "Let it loose!" might have been a good idea for some markets. In Spain it means "Suffer from diarrhoea!". So, if you are not completely familiar with the country's culture you are selling into, get help, talk to experts and do your analytics otherwise it might cost a lot more than just budget. 

Knowing the culture is just one of the many aspects of internationalisation. Be aware of the news and trends is another one.

When FORD launched a campaign showing women bound, gagged and thrown into the trunk of a new hatchback model during the #MeToo movement, timing couldn’t have been worse, although, on a personal note, I am surprised this would have been considered a good idea at any point in time. 

ADIDAS got it just as wrong by just ignoring the times, news and events when they sent a blunt email to runners saying: I survived the Boston Marathon. Considering this mail was sent out directly after the bombing of the event. Someone should have stopped the email automation before it was sent.

Know each channel's peculiarity, audience and segment!

Know the dynamics. They can develop and never underestimate that they cross-linked. If a TV ad goes wrong, chances are 100% it will go viral on social media. Especially in the days of 360° campaigns where many, if not all channels are combined and are accessible from anywhere on the globe, get your analytics right.

Sometimes creative agencies tend to focus on a witty message or a bold approach rather than on the target group and the "good old" 4 or 7 P's. If your agency is purely creative get help from experts and make sure they have experience in the relevant markets.

Especially when we get to more complex cultures like China, Japan, UAE where a majority of us will probably not move around as easily as in Western Europe or the US. One word, one gesture or even just a wrong colour can make products, services and campaigns crash instantly. 

When you are looking for a market entry to one of these complex markets, also be aware that your marketing strategy starts not necessarily with what you are trying to sell but yourself. 

Now we all know never to accept a business card from an ASIAN partner single-handed. Never sit the person down in your office or a meeting room with their back facing the door. 

A colleague of mine was on a project in China and, thanks to the Management having spent quite some time in Europe, he was able to communicate in German and English. 

Wanting to be a friendly person, he said bye bye in the evening to everyone using the German colloquial ":Tschüss". 

After three days he was ignored by most of the staff until one colleague approached him and told him that phonetically Tshissje means "go to hell!".

The point we are making here: focus on detail, get to know who you are dealing with before starting a high-flying campaign across the entire mix of channels. Make sure you know the market details, the competition and the culture. Most importantly, start with yourself and learn how to move or if you can’t, find someone who knows exactly how to communicate in the different cultures in order to avoid these, admittedly basic mistakes. They do have a massive impact and, as we pointed out earlier: it still happens frighteningly often that somewhere down the line of developing campaigns, clips, images, even the best lose track. 

Two examples from my personal experience: we designed a massive mailing campaign stating: "Send us your business card, we send you a test ride!"  Good idea? No! The moment this campaign went live, you could feel the ground vibrating because every single inkjet printer in the nation was fired up to start printing business cards. 

Another time we were struggling with an MPV model as registrations were tumbling and competition models just looked so much fresher. So, our agency came up with a motive that showed a lady standing with her back to the camera, the vehicle in the background and her holding a contraceptive pill circle over a rubbish bin. Title was: You got this car? You don't need that!

Again, a good example how agencies go bold and you get carried away. Luckily, we tested it outside the main parking lot on our internal test space as a billboard first and when one of our C-level executives got so distracted by this advert that he drove his car into the entrance barrier, we knew that we didn't want to go on with this campaign. 

Just in case you might have thought it is a one-way-street. If you adapt a product or service for a foreign market to extend your market share in that region, thanks to lightning speed media in these days it might come back to you in your home market. A good example was the VW Atlas, launched in 2017. VW was positioning itself as environmentally friendly and innovative. A car the size of a “castle” was not exactly what VW customers and the press in Europe found credible in this instance. So, just to make things a bit more complicated, always look at the “big picture”.


To close the circle let’s summarise everything in “my 7 must know before internationalisation”: 

  1. Know your product
  2. Know your competitors' positioning and products
  3. Know the culture of the market you are entering
  4. Know how your target group and how they communicate
  5. Know the current events globally and locally
  6. Know you have done your Marketing Intelligence / Research
  7. Know ALL challenges and link up with Legal, Logistics, SALES, Controlling to make it a smooth operation.

We at TML can gladly assist with any help in these matters. Just contact The Marketing Leaders for a first conversation how about how we can help you in get it right.