The ads that get lost in translation

Companies seeking to sell their products to ethnic communities must cross cultural as well as language barriers with their marketing material
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CHINESE, Indian and other Asian communities in Britain and mainland Europe represent a large, untapped market for many businesses. Yet few companies targeting ethnic consumers do more than translate their marketing into the relevant language - a fatal error, says Betty Yao, who this month launches CNE Marketing Services to create and advise on ethnic campaigns.

As managing director of cable and satellite channel Chinese News & Entertainment (CNE), Ms Yao has learned through trial and error how to market her service to more than 1 million Chinese people living in Europe. CNE, launched three years ago, now provides a free, advertiser-supported programme service broadcast nightly in Cantonese and Mandarin to 20 countries via the Astra satellite. Its main markets are the UK, the Netherlands, France and Germany.

"Understanding not just the language but the way of life is a prerequisite," says Ms Yao. "We speak different languages, we have different food habits - for example, not everyone eats rice."

Yet few mainstream businesses bother to learn such cultural nuances; and those that do mostly translate English material, often ending with campaigns that are clumsy, irrelevant or patronising. "Chinese people think most European companies ignore them," Ms Yao says.

But get it right and a successful marketing campaign can pay dividends. Chinese consumers may be slow to embrace new products, but once interested, they are loyal and highly brand-conscious. "With many European Chinese having settled in the 1950s and 1960s, the first generation are approaching retirement age, with leisure time to spare and money to spend," says Ms Yao. "But there is a wealthy older group of Chinese consumers who just don't know how to spend, because no one has ever bothered to sell to them in their own language."

The same applies to other ethnic groups, says Jarved Husain, director of specialist agency Mediareach Advertising. Current estimates suggest that the UK population alone includes some 4.8 million people of ethnic- minority background, representing a combined spending power of pounds 13bn. "It is a significant market waiting to be targeted," Mr Husain says. "Marketing directors are waking up to it but all too often their agencies regard ethnic consumers as too few, too scattered, or too costly to reach."

Most efforts so far have been "half-baked," says Ms Yao. But this is changing as marketing departments begin to focus on budding brands among ethnic- minority consumers. "It must be more than a quick in and out," she says. "Consistently building and supporting brands over time is essential, and, to achieve this, businesses need `local' knowledge."

Mercury Communications is one mainstream advertiser taking ethnic targeting seriously. Last year it introduced a strategy to run promotions for long- distance and overseas telephone services coinciding with local and religious festivals. The first was during the Hindu festival of Diwali last autumn. The company approached CNE at Christmas to run a second campaign to coincide with the Chinese New Year.

Mercury asked CNE to handle translation of ad material created by UK agency Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury. CNE ended up rewriting it and eventually made a TV ad and radio commercial and designed a press ad and promotional leaflet in-house.

"In the end, HHCL created the ideas, CNE wrote the scripts," Mercury consumer marketing executive Simon Crellin explains. "We have a few Chinese employees we can talk to, but neither they, the advertising agency, nor a translation specialist could give us the creative input we needed."

Emirates Airlines and its advertising agency, Butterfield Day Devito Hockney, have also turned to CNE, for a TV commercial for Hong Kong. "Often agencies do an English version and then dump it, leaving it to offices in other countries to handle local translation," BDDH head of TV Patrick Murphy explains. "But that way you lose control. With CNE we were able to adapt our work in London, translating from the English and reworking it into colloquial Mandarin."

"Mercury's Harry Enfield campaign and its latest Oliver & Claire advertising has no meaning for ethnic groups. The concept has to be relevant," Mr Husain adds. This applies to American and Italian expats as much as it does to Indian and African people living in Britain. Mediareach advertising is now broadening its brief to handle campaigns targeting UK-based Spaniards and Greeks.

At CNE Marketing Services, Ms Yao plans to broaden the brief to cater eventually for a range of ethnic groups from Asia. "It is a business that can only grow," she believes. "The ethnic market offers an opportunity that all product sectors could tap in to."

Mr Crellin predicts significant future growth in ethnic marketing fuelled by the rapid rise of ethnic media. In the UK there are already many specialist newspapers, magazines and radio services, such as Sunrise and Spectrum, and numerous cable and satellite TV channels such as Middle East Broadcasting and Asian channel Zee TV. "There's now much more opportunity to target different groups of consumers," he says, "and this is forcing all of us to be more creative."