The business case for international visual assets is clear. Humans are hard-wired to process images faster than text, creating more engagement and conversions. But cultural differences can get in the way. Here’s how to protect your investment and maximize impact.

The earliest known cave art is 44,000 years old. The oldest writing systems have been around for 5,000 years. This gap is reflected in the relative ease with which we decipher text and images. We can process images within 13 milliseconds, but it can take 200 milliseconds to process a word. When catching someone’s attention, visuals will give you a distinct advantage.

The transformation of social media platforms illustrates why this is important for businesses. Facebook and Twitter started out as text-based sites. But now, Facebook image posts account for 87% of engagement. Tweets with images receive 18% more clicks, 89% more favourites and 150% more retweets. In Japan, visual stickers play a key role on LINE, while striking visuals can help you stand out on WeChat.

Video consumption has been growing for years. Globally, we spend 3.7 hours a day watching it – and that was before lockdown. Italy saw a 20x increase in the amount of video content watched during their lockdown, and they weren’t alone.

So the question for businesses looking to grow and engage their customer base isn’t whether to invest in visual content. It’s how best to go about it.

A picture tells a thousand words, because we draw on cultural knowledge and memories to interpret them. This means not everyone gets the same message. If you don’t control how your story is perceived, your brand reputation and ROI could be at risk.

For impactful visual storytelling, you’ll need strategy, technical know-how, creativity and audience insights. A global campaign with local nuance will help you to protect your budget without compromising on engagement. Here are the factors that can affect your success.


Your brand recognition depends on your visuals, sound (e.g. audio logo, style of background music) and tone of voice. It needs to be consistent, recognizable and memorable – for all the right reasons, in all your markets.

When expanding into a new market, do your due diligence. Does your name mean something rude in the local language (like the unfortunate gaffe Hell’s Basement Brewery made in Maori)? Are there local competitors with similar brands? Do your brand colours have different associations in that market?

For example, the colour red can be the colour of love, anger, good luck, a wedding dress, a stop sign or Communism. Green can remind you of jealousy, nature, the Emerald Isle, the US dollar or the religion of Islam. In the Netherlands, orange is associated with royalty. In the UAE, violet is the colour of traditional dress worn by elderly women.

These subconscious associations will affect how your brand is received. Testing your logo and brand guidelines will ensure you start off on the right foot – and maximize your launch investment.


There are many reasons a campaign can fall foul of the audience’s cultural values – including attitudes towards storytelling and reasoning.

High-context cultures place a greater value on relationships. Although US and UK audiences may appreciate getting to the point fast, this can feel cold and unfeeling to Latin American consumers.

US telecoms operator Nextel enjoyed success with the strapline “Done”. They wanted to highlight how much businesses could achieve with their efficient products. But this message didn’t resonate with Hispanic consumers. They didn’t value getting the task done quickly, unless they were also tending relationships. The Spanish strapline “Ya” (“right now”) worked better, especially when reinforced by visuals implying distances reducing.

nextel-walkie-talkieAs another example, Japanese and American participants were shown twenty-second video vignettes of underwater scenes. They were then asked to describe what they’d seen. The Americans focused on larger, faster and brighter objects, such as a big fish. The Japanese spoke more about what was going on in the background, like plants or a small frog. The Japanese responses also mentioned interdependencies twice as often as the US participants.

As part of the same experiment, both groups were asked to photograph someone. The Americans snapped close-up facial portraits. The Japanese group photographed the full person and included their environment. They found it helpful to see the person as a whole. These results show the importance of background for providing Japanese audiences with context. In the US, larger, more detailed focus points are more important.

When it comes to brand strategy, it’s worth testing how your core message translates to new cultures. This prevents you from inadvertently causing offence – and your story from falling flat. Conversely, by putting visual storytelling at the heart of your international campaigns, you can increase sales and brand awareness.


Taking local cultures into account doesn’t mean you can’t have a central, global look. But your choice of models and background details will make a big difference to your audience’s engagement.

It’s a challenge we had to overcome when designing multilingual, multicultural GIFs to support the UN’s coronavirus campaign. Although each GIF tells the same story, they were carefully adapted for maximum resonance in each targeted region. Feedback from local experts was crucial for getting the details of each one right. You can find out more about our process here.

Thousands of artists submitted their work to support the campaign. So we were immensely proud our US English, Mexican Spanish, Thai, Turkish, Hindi, Japanese, German, French and Arabic GIFs were all selected. A great result for an important cause.


Even before 2020, 54% of consumers around the world preferred video to other types of brand content – and global consumption boomed during lockdown. This means more engagement and more conversions. It’s no wonder 85% of businesses use video in their marketing.

When you’re building persuasive content, consider different approaches to reasoning. Some countries like to focus on principles (such as France) whereas others prefer to focus on the applications (the US). For example, do you learn a language by studying its grammar rules? Or do you immerse yourself in lots of foreign materials, even if you don’t understand them? Although people can adapt, their first preference is shaped by their education system.

If you’re planning B2B video marketing or informational content, how you structure the information is important. That doesn’t mean you have to have specific content for each market. But you should be open to cultural differences, localize your content and test to discover what works best.

Producing convincing video content also means getting to grips with speech. Most countries have an established preference for voice-over, dubbing or subtitles. And an average reading speed of 150–180 words per minute is advisable. For more practical tips, have a look at our video localization blog.


Typesetting is a big part of visual storytelling. Working with local experts will pay off in terms of effectiveness and efficiency.

Different fonts support different writing systems. When choosing new fonts, make sure they support all your target characters. If the visual effect is very different, be ready to choose an alternative. For example, handwritten fonts are particularly tricky for languages with non-Latin writing systems. Even leading (line spacing) and kerning (spaces between characters) need adjusting for languages like Arabic and Chinese.

The difference between a typeset and a non-typeset German translation.

Translations aren’t always the same length as the source text. Russian can expand by up to 30%. Chinese and Thai are usually much shorter than English. And Scandinavian languages do not mix well with narrow columns – their longer words will result in hyphens everywhere. Incorporating white space allows different languages to look great, while staying faithful to the original design.

Giving thought to localization early in the design process pays off – both in terms of beautiful artwork and efficiency savings.


Humans respond to visual storytelling depending on their cultural influences. But this doesn’t mean you can’t build a consistent global brand, or a scalable, localizable approach to content. Starting early and asking for specialist input will help you balance cost, quality and impact.

If you want to tell your brand’s story with creativity and flair, check out our multilingual design consultancy service here, then get in touch. Our expert team can help you get your message across effectively – on time, on brand and on budget.

Photo by Norman Tsui on Unsplash

ABOUT Sarah Kerkache

I’m a localization specialist with over twenty years’ experience. I love collecting insights that help to deliver high-quality results. And I’m particularly interested in how language and technology can work together.

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