Word-of-Mouth Heading Overseas

Can word-of-mouth campaigns work in other tongues?

Firms that have tried the tack in the U.S. are now looking to move it to Europe, where it is little used, and many are using Canada as a testing ground.

“If it succeeds here, we will certainly consider rolling out a similar campaign internationally,” said Sarah Dundas, Unilever’s Canadian brand manager at Knorr. Unilever, which also is running a word-of-mouth campaign for Hellmann’s mayonnaise, is one of three multinationals that have recently started such efforts in Canada. The others are Procter & Gamble—which has a campaign going for Crest Whitestrips and Folgers coffee—and Penguin Books, which is pushing Marian Keyes’ novel, Anybody Out There? All are working with Boston agency BzzAgent and its Canadian partner, Agent Wildfire of Toronto.

Dave Balter, president at BzzAgent, knows that Europe’s cultural and linguistic density will make it difficult for any company to do transnational WOM campaigns there. “Any company can hire a university-trained translator,” said Balter. “But it takes an organizational commitment to digging beneath the surface of language when marketing with consumers from diverse cultures.”

That’s why BzzAgent, like its clients, is waiting to see how well it can do in Canada before moving across the Atlantic. Canada as a test ground for the EU may seem odd to Americans who think of the nation as a monocultural land of hockey and beer. But the reality is that its population mirrors Europe for diversity. All of its large cities are ethnically varied, from Vancouver, with its huge Asian population, to Toronto, which, with 190 different ethnic groups, has been designated by the U.N. as the world’s most diverse city.

Before addressing cultural issues, the campaigns have to deal with corporate skepticism. “The interest is there, but there’s suspicion about measuring ROI,” said Nils Andres, director of the Brand Science Institute in Hamburg. “That’s just as true in Canada as it is in Europe.”