How Nike won in translation

—When brands have the courage to let their international markets develop culturally relevant marketing, it can lead to powerful work, says Craig Redmond.— 

Some brands don’t travel well. They’re like a fine wine that, after voyaging across the ocean to a less hospitable climate, no longer resembles the same divine, sun-kissed nectar it was when it left sunnier climes, but instead tastes more like something you’d drizzle on your fish and chips.

That typically happens when a brand attempts to force its values and voice onto other cultures where that colonizing attitude perhaps isn’t welcome.

It can be as tragically simple as the difference between translation and transliteration, like when KFC’s “Finger Lickin’ Good” line was interpreted as “Eat Your Fingers Off” when it first traveled to China.

Some brands, however, transcend borders, languages and wonderful cultural nuances. Because they have the courage and foresight to let those other markets birth their own offspring of that brand with its own skin, its own tongue, and its own soul.

And nobody does it better, or more generously, than Nike.

Last month the sporting goddess launched its new campaign “Play New,” which encouraged young athletes to try new sports and to embrace epic failure as a badge of honour—in America, that is.

In Korea, the positioning was reimagined as an opportunity to inspire kids to rebel against the oppressive discipline of organized athletics, and to celebrate the true aim of sport, which is having fun.

But perhaps even more distinct and culturally poignant is an interpretation by Nike Japan. Its marketers used the campaign to challenge an age-old issue of sexual inequality, not just in sport but in every aspect of Japanese society. Nike Japan is ushering in a new age where any gender can “Play New.”

It takes tremendous vision and poise for a brand to relinquish the reins to other markets and their cultures. But the dividends returned are immeasurable when consumers in those markets feel a brand’s DNA intertwines with their own.

And if there’s one expression that never gets lost in translation, it’s this: ka-ching.

Craig Redmond is a Creative Leader with Palmer Stamnes and Co, an independent family of marketing communication companies