In the late 1980s, I got my first job at W.B. Doner & Co. in Detroit, which would soon become the world’s biggest-and-best privately held advertising agency.
One of the reasons Doner was on its way to such lofty status was that the agency had just won the worldwide advertising account for British Petroleum. The agency’s best thinkers—award-winning writers and art directors—were up to their eyeballs in work as a result. One team was shooting a series of otherworldly-cool commercials that featured Air Force jets and Apache helicopters, another team was producing radio spots, another team was churning out print ads, OOH boards, and other printed pieces. Account people were flying around the globe, staying in fancy hotels, eating in the finest restaurants, piling up frequent flyer miles and doing whatever else it is that account people do.
What everyone was doing was all falling under a common thread, a phrase that would become the tagline for the British Petroleum: “BP. On the move.”
“On the move” was featured at the bottom of every printed piece and at the end of every broadcast commercial. BP was being rebranded around the world as the company that was fueling the planet’s economy. If a delivery needed to be made, BP was making it happen. If there were a military action taking place, BP was part of the mission. If a family in Cleveland wanted to spend a day at King’s Island Amusement Park, BP made sure they got there and got home safely.
BP was on the move. And because of BP, the world was on the move.
Naturally, not every citizen in every country speaks primarily English. Some places are French, some are Spanish, some are German. So the agency had to translate every printed piece and every broadcast character and voice over to meet the multiple language needs of wherever BP would be advertising. It was a Herculean task, but the agency got it done: “BP. On the move,” was the call of the company around the globe.
But there was one problem. It was a problem that cuts across cultures and entirely through language. It was a problem that could have been avoided with just the slightest attention to detail and a little research. It was a problem that no one anticipated and caused great embarrassment for BP in a certain part of Spain.
I forget exactly where, but somewhere in Spain the phrase “on the move” translated into Spanish means generally the same thing as “I’m about to have a bowel movement.” It’s not a problem. Everyone does it. But does a company trying to advertise itself as the leader of fuels around the world want to suggest to a culture that everyone who works for the company indeed needs a few minutes to “freshen up?”
Once the embarrassment left the expressions of everyone at BP and at my old agency, a new tagline for that particular region was adopted and the brand building could continue. And everyone was a little smarter.