December 2018
Text by Rebecca Ray

Image: © nito500/

Rebecca Ray is a senior analyst at market research firm Common Sense Advisory (CSA Research). She focuses on enterprise globalization, social media, multilingual SEO, and global product development. Rebecca is fluent in English, French and Spanish, and proficient in Portuguese and Turkish.
Twitter: @globalizediva

Don’t let global content missteps trip you up

C-level executives ignore the power of global content at their own risk – neglecting or mismanaging it can negatively impact brand value, the bottom line, and even their own career paths.

Companies still learn the hard way that almost all the content they publish – or that is created by their customers and prospects – is global. Whether or not content is translated or intended for a specific audience, all viewers have access to it and make their opinions heard at the global level – especially if they have negative feelings. As content plays a larger strategic role in business success, organizations are looking for ways to do a better job to world-proof the words, images, and audio that project their brand. In this article, we describe the challenge of global content missteps, provide examples, and offer advice on how to avoid becoming a bad localization meme.


Executives can pay a high price for content blunders

Firms generally recognize that content has value in supporting their brand worldwide and attracting and retaining customers. However, executives tend to over-invest in the creation of the original material while scrimping on the localized versions upon which they often depend for a hefty portion of their revenue. This disproportionate spending frequently results in a lack of oversight during the design phase, which can lead to embarrassing, if not disastrous, results in terms of PR. Worse yet, the missteps can cause a reduction in overall brand value and market cap numbers over the short term, as well as adversely impact the career path for C-level executives.

All organizations want to avoid being the poster child of global marketing missteps. Yet, examples unfortunately appear all too often:  

H&M’s catalog miscalculation

Regardless of one’s opinion of its appropriateness, you have to wonder how the original product and accompanying marketing content for a T-shirt ad in January 2018 survived internal review at fast-fashion retailer H&M. Even if its home base in Sweden was not offended by the product, H&M only had to ask personnel in top markets such as the United States, Germany, France, or the United Kingdom what they thought before proceeding with the design idea. As a result, H&M lost clothing line collaborators such as Weeknd and faced a high level of backlash from U.S. customers.

Image 1: H&M advertises a product without thinking through its global implications
Source: H&M online offering in the United Kingdom


United Airlines’ damage control goes awry

Asia has always been a strategic market for United – long before the rise of China – so one would expect that its corporate behavior is followed closely. However, the company’s crisis response team failed to take that into account when news broke about an outsourced security team dragging a passenger off one of its planes under rather violent circumstances. It turned into an international incident as hundreds of millions (not thousands) of people commented on Weibo, with some even cutting up their United frequent flyer cards. Calls for boycotts spread throughout Asia – especially worrying since China is the second-largest market in the world for aviation and still growing. The company briefly lost almost US$1 billion due to the incident.

Yelp’s obliviousness in the face of Turkish history

When the review forum Yelp announced via Twitter last year that it was entering the Turkish market, it rather oddly chose the image of a church for a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim – comparable to using a mosque graphic for an announcement targeted at North Americans. That being said, the church image didn’t match what most Turks see in their country, as the construction of Christian Orthodox churches doesn’t resemble the humble wood building depicted in the image. But even more bothersome to many Turks was the mention of the Trojan Horse used to hide Greek soldiers for an ambush during the war for Troy.

Image 2: Yelp selects a tone-deaf image to enter the Turkish market



Global content requires governance beyond translation sign-off

The companies in the examples cited are certainly not the only global brands that have stumbled over global messaging and content. Yet it’s impossible for even the most global-savvy person or team to recognize all possible cross-cultural reactions to a particular message, image, or video. So, what is a company to do?

  • Institute governance for all content types and delivery platforms. Implement a process to quickly show executives what content is being published, how and where it’s being consumed, and the reactions to it across various markets – whether localized or not. Local language services providers (LSPs) or marketing agencies can monitor in-language content for you. If United had followed this process, it would have recognized very quickly that the first statement made by its CEO had not only fallen flat in its highest-growth market and region, but was also causing a huge backlash to using its services. By paying a local LSP in Turkey – or even talking to one Turkish expatriate – Yelp could have introduced its service successfully, rather than appearing to be clueless about the history of the new market that it was entering.
  • Form a crisis management team – before anything blows up. This is the number one rule for crisis management. The United incident is enough to cause any C-level executive to quake in his or her boots, but it’s just as important for small companies. Why? Because you may only have one chance for correction and damage control if your brand is not already well-known – especially in markets with strong local, regional, and international competitors poised to take advantage of any misstep. This team should include international representation in addition to the standard PR, legal, financial, and executive members.
  • Move upstream to exert control over international product and service design. Pay attention when content goes viral globally, in case ineptly conceived copy, creative designs, or products trigger a strong negative reaction, such as the aforementioned T-shirt from H&M. Implement or optimize a process that will ensure that the appropriate international input reaches the people responsible for design in time to fully leverage international insights. There are several decision-making models that can work, depending on your corporate culture: cross-functional steering groups, executive committees, and global scorecards. Start your campaign now to establish or strengthen your content governance model.

The power of global content

C-level executives ignore the global power of content at their own risk. Preparing video, social commentary, product documentation, mobile ads, or user reviews for global primetime is a basic requirement these days – whether or not your executives consider it to be strategic. It’s clear that people consume content locally, regardless of the language it’s in.

Your current and future customers around the world base their perceptions and propensity to do business with you on your cultural understanding of their market and needs. Don’t allow your executives to go down the same path as United CEO Oscar Munoz did: being forced to learn the hard way how content neglect or mismanagement can impact brand value, the bottom line, and even one’s own career path.