This commentary first appeared in Forbes.
Forbes: Learn From Burger King's Advertising Fiasco
When your advertising campaign draws official protest from a nation's government instead of increased sales, it's time to rethink your marketing strategy. Unfortunately for Burger King's investors, who have seen their investment lose value while McDonald's&... as consumers look for cheap eats, this is exactly what just happened.
Burger King's recent European campaign for the Texican Whopper featured a lanky American cowboy, a short, round Mexican draped in a cape resembling Mexico's flag and the tag line "the taste of Texas with a little spicy Mexican." The uproar was immediate. Jorge Zemeno, the Mexican ambassador to Spain, objected publicly. Many Mexican-Americans have voiced strong displeasure with the ads.
I wrote last month in "Barbie Goes To China" that companies must target their brand messages to local consumers and sometimes reposition their brands for different markets. They also need to think globally while they act locally. A poorly conceived campaign in a single place can damage your brand image everywhere. In this age of Twitter and YouTube, marketing stumbles spread fast and live forever. You have to keep a tight leash on your campaigns around the world and understand global ramifications.
Burger King isn't the first company to fail to consider the global implications of an ad campaign. There are abundant business school case studies of forays into local markets gone wrong from poor adaptation. Today the stakes are higher than ever, as emerging markets are the only markets still enjoying growth in the financial crisis and they must contribute a huge share of revenue for even the largest companies.
For instance, China has replaced the U.S. as the world's largest auto market and has become the last major driver of growth for auto manufacturers like General Motors, which expects to double its sales there in the next several years.
My firm, the China Market Research Group, cmrconsulting.com.cn, estimates 6% to 8% growth in China's auto sector this year, which, though considerable, is far less than last year. The highest gains will come in the luxury segment and in small-engine cars for younger drivers. Mercedes had 50% growth on the Chinese mainland in March, year over year. GM's corresponding figure was about 25%.
Fiat and its sexy Ferrari brand have fallen far behind--because a poorly conceived ad campaign devastated their ability to capture this growth. And the campaign didn't even air in China; however, outraged Chinese consumers replayed the ads thousands of times on online video sites.
Last year, Fiat released an ad in Italy in which actor Richard Gere drives a Lancia Delta from Hollywood to Tibet. Gere is hated in China for being an outspoken supporter of the Dalai Lama. He was hardly the right spokesman for an ad touching on a topic so incredibly sensitive to the Chinese. It caused an online uproar and Chinese message boards were flooded with comments from consumers saying they would never buy a Fiat car.
Not only does this show the danger of not thinking through the ramifications of a local campaign in a global world; it also highlights the pitfalls of celebrity marketing. A celebrity beloved in one market may be loathed in another, as I wrote in "Celebrities and China: Marketing Hell."
Burger King's and Fiat's blunders are just examples. They aren't the first, and they won't be the last. But smart companies can learn from them. If your business has a global presence, you absolutely must be attuned to the cultural issues in every relevant market. A couple of decades ago, nothing would have come of these missteps because information traveled much more slowly. In the world we live in, Chinese consumers are going to know about ads in Italy and Mexican consumers will pick up on ads in Europe.
To prevent such mistakes, companies must better communicate messages across their different offices and establish measures to ensure that controversial ads don't get air time. You want press coverage, but you don't want that kind of press coverage.
Shaun Rein is the founder and managing director of the China Market Research Group, cmrconsulting.com.cn, a strategic market intelligence firm focused on China. He writes often for Forbes on leadership, strategy and marketing.