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Imagine that you’re the marketing manager for a brand-new restaurant chain ready to roll out a new sandwich to points around the globe. You think you have a catchy, unforgettable name. But here’s the problem: If you never leave your home office in Tulsa, there’s a chance your idea could fall on its face in some part of, say, Asia or the Middle East. Don’t laugh: One food manufacturer from the United Kingdom once spent around $10 million to launch a new sauce—only to get flooded with calls from Punjabi speakers telling them that the product’s name sounded just like the Punjabi term for a human posterior.

Successful, fast-growing brands these days tend to move quickly to plant their flag in important emerging markets thousands of miles away. Nations like Thailand, after all, are not optional—for global businesses, they are the future. Getting it right, therefore, is particularly crucial. But as the example above shows, marketing in a new place can be a complicated proposition fraught with unintended pitfalls. Words or phrases don’t always translate precisely. A target customer in one South American nation might be totally different than the ideal consumer in Southeast Asia.

That’s why in 2010, when KFC rebuilt its brand around the phrase “so good,” we paused to ask ourselves: What does that phrase mean to folks in Thailand?

Operational and business challenges are discussed in books and white papers, but the creative differences and hurdles are just as crucial to address, if not more. KFC figured out that the only right answer was to have people on the ground there morph the global campaign into a local one—turn “so good” into something that would resonate in Thailand.

What did we do? First of all, we looked at the new slogan as an opportunity—not only to sell more chicken dinners, but also to better define KFC’s place in the Thai culture. Specifically we were interested in families—because they make up our natural customer base, but also because the size and dynamics of families in Thailand has been gradually evolving.

Many families have shrunk over the past generation or two, with couples choosing to have one child instead of large families. The sole child has become the family’s central focus. So we spent some time studying teens and families through social channels and interviews. We found that, as in many places, teens were getting an inordinately bad rap in the media, which primarily focused on violence, drug addiction, and sexual misadventures.

Teens will rebel, of course. But the vast majority is also smart and well meaning; in Thailand adolescents generally value their place within the family structure. We decided the way to go was to create television spots about them that suited Thais’ love of humorous, light-hearted, inspiring stories with happy endings. Our ads about adolescents would both demonstrate and draw out their potential. And we would put them on TV, because the television is a central gathering point for Thai families—one of the few reliable vehicles for bringing parents and kids together for some fun, quality time. Our first spot focused on Mother’s Day—and one youngster’s wobbly but ultimately charming effort to raise money to buy his mom dinner.

Another ad depicts a teenage rock band in which the drummer turns up with a fresh cast on his arm—prompting the lead singer to implore his father to come help. The dad, reluctant at first, winds up playing the drums in the band’s concert, and even amps up his coolness factor by wearing a porkpie hat. The “so good” message: “This school break I know what connects us. Not words or things, but time… Time when we’re together.”

We also tapped into the local vernacular to make the slogan feel uniquely local in origin. In Thai society, many people—but especially teens—use the word jai, meaning “heart,” in combination with many other words to express good feelings. (Perd-jai, for example, means open-hearted, or open-minded.) We renamed some of the items on the combo-meal menu to connect with that highly Thai-centric term. So the JuJai combo meal means contentment—and we trumpeted the rebranding with “so good” ads like this one:

We named another meal the Sukjai set—that term meaning happy at heart—and connected it to an adolescent learning the meaning of giving during the holidays.

We built another family-focused interpretation of the campaign around two holidays—Thai New Year and international New Year—that are particularly oriented toward traditional three-generation gatherings (grandparents, parents, children). This touches on another shift in Thai culture: Many families have moved farther apart, and those holidays typically involve travel for hometown reunions. The campaign was built around the phrase “Pla-Ta-Pien”—a fish-shaped symbol that represents good wishes. In this context, we’re using the visual to amplify the importance of family ties during one of the year’s most important occasions, Song Kran, or Thai New Year, held in April.

You’ll notice that most of these are traditional television ads. Even though use of mobile devices is on the rise, TV is still central to Thai culture, so in expanding on and localizing the slogan we focused mostly on that medium. But we still pushed the message out over social media, integrated platforms, and in-store displays, and even through the restaurant staffs themselves.
KFC obviously originated on the other side of the world. But with our own interpretation of the new slogan we were able to make the brand sing in notes that only Thai consumers can hear—which led to the notion that the “so good” campaign was invented just for them. All of which is further proof that when it comes to marketing, even if you have to think globally, you’re wise to act locally.

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