Marketing overseas? Keep it Canadian

If you're a homegrown Canadian corporation with a yen to expand to Japan, you might find that marketing overseas is easier than it's ever been. Sure you still need to hire local distributors and marketers with a feel for the local landscape, but when it comes to your overall positioning, branding and even the ethnicity of your models, why translate when your Canadian-ness could add cachet?

If you’re a homegrown Canadian corporation with a yen to expand to Japan, you might find that marketing overseas is easier than it’s ever been. Sure you still need to hire local distributors and marketers with a feel for the local landscape, but when it comes to your overall positioning, branding and even the ethnicity of your models, why translate when your Canadian-ness could add cachet?

Shin Kawai, president of Japan Communications, started his Toronto translating and consulting firm in 1984 in response to Canadian businesses’ increased interest in Japan, the second most important foreign market after the U.S. But when it comes to translating brand messages, these days he will often advise clients, ‘Don’t bother.’ Exact translations of slogans rarely work, he says, and it can be difficult to create a culturally sensitive interpretation.

Often involved in Team Canada junkets, Kawai cites the Ontario government’s slogan ‘Let’s do business’ as an example. He advised officials that it was ‘too direct’ for Japanese sensibilities. Even the German translator found it too brash for Teutonic ears, he says.

The solution? Leave it in English. It is the international language of commerce after all, says Kawai, and many Japanese businessmen will accept the message better in its Western cultural context.

And while cultural sensitivity is one reason to leave it in English, culture lust may be another. The reason? Asian societies are not only more open, but actively fascinated with the Western lifestyle. For instance, the Chinese distributors of Roots Canada apparel are using Caucasian models to market to fellow Chinese. And some English branding messages (or other foreign languages) are actually preferred by the Japanese.

It would be a ‘let down’ if Britain’s Johnnie Walker or France’s Chanel translated their brands into Japanese script or sayings, explains Kawai. ‘If it’s produced in England, we want to feel that tradition. If it’s a famous global logo, we want to see it.’

Given their history of isolation, Kawai explains, ‘Japan is an island always interested in new things coming from outside.

‘So, if Caucasian women are modelling European couture in a Japanese fashion magazine, or a natural outdoor type is wearing Roots, it is fitting. There’s a reason that product line was born in Canada. Using Canadian models really tells Japanese consumers a story and depicts a different experience.’

Still, translation is a must when a brand name sounds like something inappropriate or insulting in the local tongue. For instance, most would agree that Enco is an appropriate name for an energy company, but when phonetically translated into Japanese, ‘it conveys the meaning that your car is breaking down,’ says Kawai. ‘That is not sending the best message about a gas company.’

In reverse, the Japanese dairy soft drink Calpis is another famous ironic malaprop. When pronounced really quickly in English, some people hear ‘cow piss’ – not the kind of image desired for a beverage derived from cow’s milk. The product has long since been marketed to Westerners under the name Calpico.

Les Mandelbaum, president of hot, hip Canadian home accessory company Umbra, ran into a similar problem.

The famous Oh chair, by renowned designer Karim Rashid, was originally dubbed the Ohm chair – until the company learned that it sounded like Aum, the terrorist group that released poison gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995. Mandelbaum says he now vets approximately 300 new product names a year in a published memo to Umbra distributors around the globe, as more than 85% of the company’s sales take place outside Canada, in over 50 different countries.

While Western branding can work for many products, Kawai says when it comes to detail information, of course, advertising must be translated. It’s a matter of effecting a balance between bulldozing a foreign land with the Western Way, and microtranslating everything for every region.

‘It’s not an either/or proposition,’ says Jeannette Hanna, director of strategic communications at Spencer Francey Peters, the Toronto branding and design firm responsible for the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts brand since 1991. Another home-grown international success story, the Four Seasons now owns 53 properties in 23 countries around the globe, including hotels in Shanghai and Tokyo.

‘It’s a matter of finding a creative way to be global and local at the same time,’ Hanna says. ‘Each of the Four Seasons properties is unique, from a 13th century monastery in Milan to New York’s 57th Street. They are of the location. It’s not like the Holiday Inn where there are no surprises. At the same time, we want to showcase what is consistent – the level of service and reputation for luxury – and we created a design platform specifically to do that.’

Within what she describes as the ‘overarching architecture,’ all collateral pieces have a similar high-end look, no matter what the local culture. Inside, specifics are elegantly written in both English and the foreign language, amidst photos emphasizing local scenic beauty.

‘It’s part of our philosophy to build on the strength of diversity. One size does not fit all,’ she says.

Air Canada has a similar philosophy, one that’s even reflected in its management structure.

‘To manage our global brand in the best possible way, we have to balance the right level to localize and centralize our communications,’ says Charles McKee, senior director of marketing in Montreal. Thus, overarching marketing strategies conceived at head office rely heavily on input from marketing co-ordinators located in each region, he says.

The major international airline further increased its global communications after acquiring Canadian Airlines’ Vancouver hub, which dramatically upped flights to the Pacific Rim. The Asian region alone now accounts for $1 billion annually. On the Japan route, 80% of sales are from tickets purchased in Japan rather than Canada, so most of the marketing is instigated in Japan.

Local input can range from which medium is best, to which target market to hit. For instance, Air Canada uses transit in Japan because people spend a lot more time in the subway and television is too expensive, says McKee.

On Air Canada’s China routes, 60% of the sales used to be in North America and 40% in China, reports Graham Perkins, general manager for greater China, Hong Kong and South Pacific. Now it’s the other way around, with 60% of sales originating in China and 40% in North America, thanks in large part to pricing and packaging strategies tailored for Chinese students, who are now free to travel to Canada in record numbers.

When it comes to the creative look for overseas ads, Chris Garton, general manager for Tokyo, Japan and Korea, says Air Canada tends to highlight Canada’s scenic North. Japanese travellers, in particular, really respond to images of the Aurora Borealis.

Flight and fare details, of course, are in the appropriate Asian language, however both regional managers were initially surprised at the sheer amount of this information crammed into the ads.

‘When I first arrived, I said the first thing we need to do is simplify the ads and make them more visual,’ says Perkins. But Garton says they learned quickly that in Japan ‘advertising is one of the main methods of getting information. They go through the ads meticulously and don’t want to be surprised.’

Such cultural differences mean that ‘Canadian businesses must still do their homework,’ says Kawai – even if after the homework’s done, you end up running with the same branding messages you use at home.

International Marketing

How bun-wearing models helped Cinnzeo conquer the Philippines

Cinnamon is the spice of life for Calgary entrepreneur Brian Latham, who has encountered a variety of cultures in the East while building a multimillion dollar empire on a cinnamon bun.

The goal

Originally a franchisee with the American Cinnabon chain of stores, Latham and a group of Calgary business people decided to strike out on their own in 1997 and develop a Canadian cinnamon bun franchise. By 1999, Cinnaroll Bakeries – including manufacturing division Baker Boys and 18 Cinnzeo retail stores in Western Canada – was ready to grow. However he didn’t expand to Southern Ontario, or even the U.S.

at first.

‘Interestingly, we went to the furthest location away,’ says Latham.

Perched on the Pacific Rim, with its mix of Asian cultures and cuisines, the Philippines seems an unlikely country to start franchising a Western fast food sweet.

But with a population of 10 million, capital city Manila represents almost a third of the population of Canada, so Latham’s first international arrow aimed for this important, dense market.

The strategy

Besides sheer numbers, Filipinos love sweets and eat six to seven times a day, often from the street, says Latham. So the first Cinnzeo store was a combination streetfront and mall store.

Filipinos don’t consider cinnamon buns a breakfast item, as North Americans do, a cultural nuance which prompted a change in strategy. Instead, the owners promoted the sweet roll as a late-night treat, extended closing time from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., and added cappuccino to the menu.

‘It’s more of a late-night entertainment scenario over there,’ says Latham.

The execution

Communication was done on the cheap, but very successfully. There was absolutely no paid advertising; it was all PR, remembers Latham. Because the cinnamon roll was such a new concept to the exotic clime, the Filipino partners capitalized on its news value in newspaper articles and talked to magazine food editors. The marketing was designed by the local franchisee, with input from the Canadian head office.

Their major promotional event, a photo art exhibit, generated even more coverage. For the event, several photographers captured famous, sexy models creatively interacting with the novel baked good. One photo, for instance, featured a beauty wearing a necklace made of cinnamon buns.

This campaign was a far cry from the advertising splash used by a Saudi Arabian franchisee to promote the newest Cinnzeo location in Beirut, Lebanon. There, a $50,000 campaign featured both radio ads and 500 huge billboards, saturating the market of 1.8 million people. Upon seeing the never-ending lineups, an Arab business colleague remarked to Latham: ‘You own the market.’

The results

‘[Beirut] was the largest opening in our history when translated into Canadian dollars,’ says a satisfied Latham, who has just returned to Calgary from the Middle East.

That makes a total of 171 franchise deals worldwide in just three years, including 81 in the United States and 50 in Southeast Asia. By contrast, he notes his nearest rival, Cinnabon, took 17 years to build 500 stores.

‘We’ve gone from a nobody to second largest cinnamon roll retailer in the world.’

Now international franchisees search him out. Latham says there’s tremendous interest in North American concepts, particularly Canadian ones. ‘Canadian concepts are generally more affordable,’ says Latham, ‘and they are perceived to be operated by fairly sensible people.’

Cinnaroll is on a roll, comfortably on its way to earning its target of $90 million system-wide by 2005. SY