After more than ten years in China, I have plenty of experience with translation problems. I've used the wrong tones and the wrong characters. I’ve asked for boiled dumplings when I wanted a nap—practically the same word in Mandarin—and been forced into a sad game of charades when my language skills simply failed.

Generally speaking my errors have resulted in simple problems such as the dishes arriving at dinner or getting lost during my taxi ride—problems that can be solved with a bit of a chuckle and some patience. Unfortunately for companies trying to communicate globally, the risks faced are much more severe. When communicating with audiences around the world, problems communicating can result in messages not being effectively delivered, or perhaps more damaging, the wrong messages being shared.

It is certainly daunting to ensure that a communication campaign which has been expertly crafted, focus grouped and tweaked within one language and geography, will strike at the heart of consumers who live millions of miles apart, speak thousands of different languages and come from very diverse backgrounds. But despite these challenges, some brands are doing a fantastic job of localizing their campaigns, and I wanted to take a moment to celebrate some communication campaigns that have been brilliantly executed in my home Hong Kong recently and share some insight into what has made them so successful.

The first step to ensuring that your ideas do not become lost in translation requires you to abandon the idea of ‘translation’ in the first place. Campaigns should not simply be ‘translated,’ replacing the English slogan with the local equivalent; instead, the concept needs to be localized to ensure that the context, tone, and imagery will strike a chord with local audiences and inspire action.

Snickers’ recent rollout of its ‘You’re Not You When You’re Hungry’ campaign provides a great example of a skillfully localized campaign. Americans may be familiar with Snickers’ campaign featuring everyday folks who stop being themselves and become a someone else (e.g. an angry Joe Pesci, the diva Aretha Franklin, a whiny Richard Lewis) when they get hungry. When bringing the campaign to Hong Kong, Snickers used six famous quotes, or what they are calling ‘hungry quotations’ (肚餓語錄) drawing from infamous gaffes made by Hong Kong’s celebrities and politicians through the years.

For example, one advertisement included the quote “To protect the core value is the core of the core value,” reminding Hong Kongers of a comment to media by senior political figure Henry Tang when he was running to be Hong Kong’s chief executive. Americans will likely not get the reference, but among the Hong Kong audience, it ALWAYS pulls a laugh and often a snort! Snickers’ campaign was an immediate hit, leading thousands to take to social media creating their own derivative quotes and a tool was even created to generate the quotes in the format of Snickers’ advertisement.


This campaign shows localization at its best. No one but a local Hong Konger would understand the reference, but the ridiculous quote is completely aligned with Snickers’ message and overall campaign objective and perfectly suited for the Hong Kong audience. Henry Tang must have been hungry in order to give such a crazy response!

Another global campaign that has done a tremendous job localizing their content in Hong Kong is Carlsberg. Carlsberg relaunched its “If Carlsberg did… It would probably be the best…” campaign earlier this year, showcasing the company’s commitment to delivering the finest quality. The campaign in Hong Kong maintained the fresh and humorous tone of the campaign, while also being quick-witted, irreverent and very localized. They have released a series of new adverts explaining how Carlsberg would “probably be the best…” on a range of issues in Hong Kong.

For example, following a local politician’s comments on the growing shortage of butchers in Hong Kong, where he suggested resolving this problem by changing their title from ‘butchers’ to ‘meat separation specialists’—comments which went viral amidst a deluge of ridicule—Carlsberg immediately released this cheeky advertisement claiming that their ‘meat separation specialists’ would (probably) be the best in the world. 


Similarly, following an explosion of online comments criticizing an insurance company, who allegedly sought a corporate video themed “A Trip to Space” for their upcoming annual dinner with the pathetic budget of HKD 500 (around USD 65), Carlsberg released this sassy advertisement saying that their Carlsberg sipping astronaut “Probably had the Best Trip to Space…”


All of these campaigns successfully maintain the tone and objective of the global campaign, but put the ideas into a context designed specifically for Hong Kongers. These localized messages ensured that the campaigns resonated with consumers here in Hong Kong and have prevented any ideas from being lost in translation.

This post is part of APCO's "Brave New Ideas" blog series, featuring perspectives on creativity and ideas from colleagues around the world.

*Mars is an APCO client
Amy Wendholt

Amy Wendholt serves as the head of Global New Business for APCO Worldwide. Read More