Olympic memories are forever, and for most people involved in the games, they've been a lifetime in the making—not just for the athletes, but also for their families and inner circles who have watched and supported the athletes along the way.

Time and again, we see that the human stories behind these world-class athletes resonate across cities, states, countries, and cultures. The "Raising an Olympian" series of Web videos produced by the ZiZo Group for Procter & Gamble touches on the sacrifices made by the families of various athletes in order to reach the ultimate goal of the Winter Olympics.

The series transcended language and culture, and it delivered the marketing equivalent of gold for its sponsor. The brand lessons from that campaign and others from the Winter Olympics should serve as guidelines for companies planning their marketing strategies for this summer's World Cup Championship and the 2016 Summer Olympics, both to be held in Brazil.

In instances such as these global-scale sporting events, where target markets encompass a wide spectrum of cultures and languages, marketers need to make sure their campaigns take into account the nuances created by a multinational audience.

Everything down to the brand name itself has subtle connotations to viewers in different countries, and marketers need to be aware of phonetical, conceptual, and visual pitfalls:

  • The brand Vicks sounds very much like a German word with sexual implications, a phonetical issue that could be easy to overlook.
  • Several years ago, Nike attempted to engage the Asian youth market with an ad campaign featuring Lebron James and a kung fu master, but the ad was a huge failure because it was found incredibly offensive by Chinese markets, creating a conceptual problem for the brand.
  • The US hand gesture for "OK" is decidedly not OK in South America, where it would deliver the wrong visual message for any brand unlucky enough to use it.

Simple, automated translation, which does not account for cultural differences, cannot catch those kinds of issues before they turn into multimillion-dollar mistakes.

So what does work when you're dealing with multicultural, multilingual, multinational marketing campaigns?

P&G's Olympic campaign started with a universal idea—what it takes to raise an Olympian—and used it to tell the personal stories of 19 athletes who collectively spoke 11 languages. To ensure the campaign was relevant to the many markets interested in the Olympics, and also respectful of the diverse linguistic backgrounds of the videos' subjects, the marketing agency for the project decided to localize the videos (into Austrian, Dutch, English, Flemish, German, French, Italian, Korean, Polish, Romanian, Russian, and Swedish). Using professional linguists familiar with each culture guaranteed that each version met the standards for that particular market.

Ensuring the success of such an enormous marketing effort requires agencies and brands to...

1. Consider the global strategy from the start

Too often, brands determine their taglines in English only. Only once they begin expanding beyond domestic borders do they realize that the phrasing is awkward or offensive, or it simply doesn't make sense in an international market.

Companies planning marketing campaigns for the 2016 Summer Olympics or this year's World Cup in Brazil should begin now to examine the implications of their messaging in Portuguese. It's possible that some brands will need to re-engineer their marketing messages to be more effective in the host country's primary language.

2. Question assumptions

It's true that the client is always right, but in the case of international marketing campaigns, their knowledge often falls short and agencies need to push back when appropriate. Hearing that their strategy will be unsuccessful internationally and requires reworking is difficult for a client, but they will save millions of dollars—and their reputation—by fixing the campaign on the front end to ensure its success.

3. Involve regional stakeholders

Effective global brand management requires local voices. Work with stakeholders in the region or regions to create brand identity and style guides, glossaries, and sample translations before creating the campaign theme. Those teams can be invaluable later, too, when it's time to consult on campaign concepts, review creative briefs, and adapt and translate the creative elements.

4. Harness localization technology and services

Capturing honest, authentic, and engaging messages that resonate with regional audiences requires a mix of human experts and highly specialized technology. Among the elements that go into an international campaign are ad copy localization, brand research, cultural consulting, document translation, multilingual typesetting, website globalization, interpretation, voiceovers and subtitling, and more. Marketing teams should determine where their needs are and ensure they have the resources required to execute in those areas.

* * *

Creating multilingual marketing materials and delivering a massive global output in a short period of time is a tall order for brands, but it's also a necessary one if companies are to show that they truly speak their customers' languages, in every sense of the phrase.

Marketers rightly see global sporting events as opportunities to engage millions of international viewers. To do that effectively takes far more than simple translation, but the global return on investment is well worth the effort.

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image of Liz Elting

Liz Elting is a co-founder and the CEO of TransPerfect/Translations, a family of companies providing global business services in over 100 languages.

LinkedIn: Liz Elting