How Global Brands Translate International Ad Copy & Creative

By Tinuiti Team

When ad copy is translated into another language, because of the cultural differences, sometimes the original meaning is lost.

If you’re a big name brand like Pepsi, Ford, or Coors –  these advertising mishaps can end up costing millions of dollars, not to mention irreparable damage to the brand name.

Why International Ad Campaign Translation Matters

Just look at what happened to KFC when they failed to adapt their ad copy to the Chinese audience:

In English “finger-lickin’ good” fried chicken sounds delicious, but the literal translation of this phrase in Chinese is, “We’ll eat your fingers off”.

Somehow this ad copy wasn’t flagged and went live. As you can imagine, the cannibalistic pitch wasn’t very successful and the ads were quickly pulled.

Although most of us can sit back and laugh at these foreign ad translation fails, other advertising slips result in some serious backlash.

For example, Kendall Jenner’s controversial Pepsi advertisement that borrowed imagery from the Black Lives Matter movement was without a doubt, a cringe-worthy moment for everyone involved last year.

Whether it be translating ad copy or figuring our how an ad will be “perceived” by it’s target audience – brand creative is tricky and must be handled delicately.

Nobody understands that better than Guy Gilpin, Founder and Chairman* of Mother Tongue, a company that provides international copywriters for transcreation and translation services for brands.



In the following interview with Gilpin, we get an inside peek at what it’s like to work with household names like Levi’s and BMW on their international advertising campaigns across print and ecommerce.

Mother Tongue: An international advertising translation company

Gilpin has always had a passion for international advertising. He spent the earlier part of his career working for Rothmans International, Saab-Scania, and Saatchi & Saatchi.

But after several years, Gilpin identified “a gap” in the industry for brands who needed help translating their ad copy and creative.

“Having worked as an account manager in advertising, I recognized there wasn’t a suitable way of getting advertising copy translated – it didn’t exist,” he said.

“That’s when me and two other advertising colleagues teamed up to establish Mother Tongue.”

Mother Tongue, now owned by Omnicom Group Inc. hires copywriters from all over the world. Each copywriter is selected based on their excellent writing skills combined with language ability.

“They are all specialists in creative translation, adaptation, transcreation and we have a range to cover all disciplines, including TV scripts, press ads, online, straplines/endlines, radio scripts, posters, websites, brochures, DM and promotional material,” he said.

The company also provides local market guidance for research concepts and creative consultation including feasibility studies on straplines/endlines.

How does Mother Tongue leverage technology & copywriters?

According to Gilpin, the biggest difference between Mother Tongue and other translation services is that they hire actual “copywriters” not just translators. They also leverage technology, to provide top-notch translation and transcreative services.

Mother Tongue, London office. Credit @Facebook

Transcreation is defined as a human function and cannot be replaced by technology – however, it can be enhanced.

Today, Mother Tongue uses 2 robust technology solutions to maintain consistency (and save time) including:

XTM – XTM is a cloud-based online translation tool that allows Mother Tongue to handle large, complex documents in many different languages. XTM has a built-in translation memory function as well as a glossary function which “learns” specific brand language.

CONTENT-CONNECT – Mother Tongue’s Content-Connect is a solution for automating translation of web content between the client’s CMS, and Mother Tongue’s translation-management system (XTM). Content-Connect automatically tracks updates and amends to web content, right down to sentence level. It sends this new or updated content to translation teams using XTM. Once the copy has been translated and checked, it is automatically pushed back into the client’s CMS to be processed.

“We use the translation history and merge it with a bit of AI,” Gilpin said.

“The AI is also pulling data from the wider internet as a sort of corpus. It’s quite interesting, in most cases (unless the subject matter is very technical / medical) our technology can translate 85% of the copy and the copywriter only has to polish up the remaining 15%.”

Are there specific challenges translating ecommerce ad copy?

As expected, advertising on platforms such as Facebook or Google definitely have their own specific challenges including:

1) Attention Span & Character Limits

“Something to note about these types of ecommerce platforms is that the advertising space is fairly short,” he said.

“Today, your copy has to be short and visually interesting, but the problem is when you translate a lot of advertising copy – it grows in length.”

“For example, if you translate an English phrase into German it could grow the length of the copy by 35%. You’ve got to edit as you go and sometimes that means you have to completely walk away from the original copy and start from scratch.”

2) Layout & Keywords

“You’ve also got to keep in mind translation can impact the actual layout of the advertisement. Facebook has a particular layout, same for Google AdWords. You have a very restrictive number of characters. Going back to the German example, you could have a word in German that’s over 25 characters or longer.”

“Also when you translate from one language to another, about 25% of the keywords become irrelevant – so as an advertiser you really need to think about how your customers are searching for this item.”

Featured International Ad Translation Success Stories:


Mother Tongue worked with BMW MINI to create a sales brochure which featured a very clever headline on a page showcasing the car’s eye-catching headlights.

The task was to adapt this line, “Die Dunkelheit wird Augen machen” into English, which proved challenging for a number of reasons:


For the English transcreation, Mother Tongue had to move away from the German phrase while still expressing the idea of brightness and safety in a punchy way.

The solution? “Light up the night”

The copy was well received. According to Mother Tongue, the rhyme and rhythm lend the line its punch, while the expression relates directly to the headlights as well as lending that much needed showstopping feel.

Levi’s Curve ID Jeans

Back in 2011, a leading advertising agency in Amsterdam commissioned Mother Tongue to work on adapting copy for a new European campaign for Levi’s® Curve ID jeans.

The large-scale campaign was all about embracing different women’s body shapes and promoting Levi’s® new range of jeans that flattered every female form. The materials included brand manifestos, taglines, headlines and TVC scripts, for adaptation into 12 European languages.

The campaign set out to create a strong visual impact, featuring models with all different shapes and curves, and the handwritten-style font mirrored the curving lines of the women.

For example, the English line “No two Sarahs are alike” uses a common English name to communicate that no two women are the same.

However, this could not be translated directly for many markets because the name “Sarah” isn’t always as popular elsewhere.

Mother Tongue’s German writer used the name Julia instead and switched the emphasis of the line around to come up with “Jede Julia ist einzigartig” (meaning “Every Julia is unique”).

In Poland, it was decided that using a woman’s name would not convey the idea effectively, so the phrase “Każda z nas jest inna” (meaning “Every one of us is different”) was used instead.

Want to learn more about international advertising or translation? Email [email protected]

*Note: Gilpin served as Chairman for Mother Tongue until the end of 2017.

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