Why Different Audiences Need Localised Images

Why Different Audiences Need Localised Images Image credit: Image credit: testing / Shutterstock.com


Moving your messaging into a new cultural market requires more than just language translation. To truly engage with a new audience, you need to localise your messaging to ensure it’s relevant to their wants, needs and expectations. This activity goes above and beyond a mere language switch. You need to really understand the new audience in order to make your brand and message seem relevant to them.

It’s not just the words behind your brand presence that need rethinking for new territories. You also need to reconsider the visual elements that accompany your brand. Colours have different meanings in different markets, symbols aren’t universally understood and images don’t have the same impact on different audiences.

Consider the difficulties phone operator Orange had in Northern Ireland or the variation in meanings of the ‘thumbs up’ symbol around the world. These are just two examples of the potential for misunderstanding if visuals are moved unthinkingly into new markets.

Even in today’s information-rich and literate world, images still hold power. They can be a fast way to connect with an audience and convey a great deal of information about your brand and what it stands for. They can also help your brand get things horribly wrong very quickly. Dolce and Gabbana is still reeling from the impact of its poorly-received Chinese New Year campaign visuals, widely seen as creepy.

Controversy sells?

Bold brands use controversial images to make a splash, often gaining a new audience (whilst losing another). United Colors of Benetton famously experimented with this approach, provoking and dividing audiences with its images of dying Aids patients and Mafia victims.

The controversy of the images helped boost brand awareness, although Benetton had to manage a backlash of censorship and outrage.

Suitsupply is working on a modern version of this campaign. The menswear brand has been using provocative images seen as chauvinistic, with women depicted fawning on men in suits. More recently the brand changed tack and using same-sex male couples in its ads, a decision which both lost and won followers in social media.

Benneton and Suitsupply both illustrate valuable lessons about what is acceptable in different locations. Suitsupply’s explicit ‘Shameless’ campaign was banned from billboards in London but the brand’s provocative ads seem to have been appreciated by its Chinese audience. It’s a good illustration of how the very same images can be received very differently in different markets.

United Colours of Benetton advert in 1996 with three 'human' hearts

These ‘human’ hearts were later revealed to be pigs hearts by Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani, but it didn’t stop the controversy surrounding the image which sparked outrage in 1996.

Your brand doesn’t have to be deliberately provocative in order to run into controversy. Images that seem unremarkable in your home market can ruffle feathers overseas.

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In some Middle Eastern countries, women are not portrayed at all in advertising. Ikea photoshopped a woman out of a catalogue image showing a family in a bathroom environment, which was controversial in Western markets but made the catalogue much more acceptable in its Saudi Arabian market. Starbucks even edited out the mermaid from its logo to meet the expectations of this market.

The localisation of images associated with your marketing doesn’t need to be quite so controversial. Brands that have run into difficulties have often done so because of the crass way they’ve approached image localisation.

Microsoft was rightly criticised for the tactless way it edited ads destined for the Polish market which crudely replaced a black actor with a white actor. More successful brands have taken a less crude approach so they are less easily caught out and embarrassed about such practices.

Tailored images

It’s not always feasible to shoot new imagery for every market you plan to penetrate. Some brands aim to make a single set of campaign imagery fit every market – which can mean it’s not the best fit for any market. Another approach is to shoot a range of images and allow your global partners access to your image bank to choose which images are likely to work best in that market, based on their local knowledge.

That’s an approach often taken by larger multinationals that benefit from a local presence and permanent local advisors. Ceding some control to people with local knowledge is usually the best way to ensure your brand looks and feels grounded in its local market.

This is the method used by brands such as Samsung, which uses local production and localisation talent to make the Korean brand feel relevant in global markets. This approach still requires your central campaign team to be open to input from regional teams who may want to make their needs known.

Some brands take a much more neutral approach. Apple’s international marketing is deliberately global in vision, meaning it doesn’t need such a high level of localisation. That’s not right for all brands, but the technology company makes this approach work for them.

Apple still tweaks its marketing for local markets as necessary. The famous and long-running ‘shot on an iPhone’ campaign saw contributors sending in their own images shot using iPhone camera technology which was then featured on billboards around the world.

An Iphone X advertisement board on the side of a building in Bangkok

By collaborating with local members of each market, Apple’s global marketing campaign for its flagship phone required very little localisation in order to get its message across.  Image credit: MD_Photography / Shutterstock.com

Because this campaign imagery was crowdsourced, Apple had a straightforward way to make the images locally relevant.

Whatever approach your brand takes to using images in each market it enters, you need to understand the impact that visuals can have. Having a partner with local knowledge and exposure can help you avoid problems – just make sure they are empowered to speak up if they identify a potential weakness with the images you’re proposing to use.

It’s not usually within the budget to completely re-shoot all your visuals for each market but your brand needs to have the sensitivity to understand you can’t just move your entire catalogue into a new market and expect it to have the same impact. Becoming a global company requires you to adapt your image strategy to make it fit for purpose internationally.

Written by Demetrius Williams
Demetrius Williams
Demetrius Williams is a Digital Marketing Specialist at TranslateMedia and has previous eCommerce experience working with a number of luxury brands in the fashion and beauty industry. He enjoys photography, binge-watching Netflix and can often be found roaming around London with a camera in his hand.

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