The June 2013 issue of the Harvard Business Review contained a gem so powerful that it could rewrite creative advertising strategy overnight. “Creativity in Advertising: When It Works and When It Doesn’t,” is a summary article of a study that reviewed 437 TV advertising campaigns for 90 FMCGs over a span of five years.

The study found that creative ads not only perform better, but also actually do drive incremental revenue. You might think “Duh!” and also mimic a face-palm, but there are two very important findings here. First, rather than correlation, there’s now documented causation. Second, it’s the type of creativity that matters. Not all creativity is equally rewarded, some can actually hurt you, and its application is even product-specific.

Creativity is made up of five dimensions: Originality, Flexibility, Elaboration, Synthesis, and Artistic Value, and the most powerful combination of creativity is Originality + Elaboration. The article explains each dimension very well, which is why spending $6.95 on the PDF (if you are not already an HBR subscriber), is will be the best investment you have made as a marketer this millennium so far.

However, there is one giant caveat, which the authors are completely up-front about, but never delve in to: all the ads ran in Germany. What does that mean to you?

Stories abound about how ill-named products didn’t sell well when introduce into other countries, and it is now well known and documented that you can’t just move a product and advertising campaign from one country to another, from one culture to another.

A simple example is a life insurance TV campaign that ran in South America. The scene is set at night, and the camera is pointed at a bouncing car with fogged-up windows. Emanating from the car are certain sounds made by a woman that suggest that at present a very personal and private interaction is occurring; one that is known to occasionally occur in cars, but more often in bedrooms. As the camera ultimately reveals, the woman is performing CPR on her partner, which is a physically demanding act that would cause windows to fog up and the car to bounce suggestively.

The ad was successful in Brazil, because it is culturally relevant and appropriate. The ad agency (McCann-Erickson) than ran the same ad in Chile, where it cause outrage. What went wrong? Both countries are relatively close to one another, geographically speaking on a global scale, so shouldn’t they be similar enough culturally? Chile, it turns out, is a culturally very different from Brazil; it is politically, economically, and sexually a very conservative country. It didn’t matter that both nations are located in South America and had strong economic ties. What did matter is that they were cultural opposites.

So, how do you know that an ad successful in Germany would also be successful in the U.S.? More specifically, how do you know that the creative dimensions relevant to German culture map well to U.S. culture? How do you map culture to culture?

Luckily, there are culture assessment and mapping tools out there. The obvious one is the Cultural Orientation Indicator (COI PDF), developed by TMC, a subsidiary of Berlitz (the language people). It is actually a personal assessment tool. The COI focuses on the self and measures ten cultural dimensions, but I’ve used it to map countries’ cultures against one another. You’ll need to pay to gain access.

Here’s some example output:

Cultural Orientation Index COI

Cultural Orientation Indicator Sample Output

Another good tool—this one is free (!)—was developed by Dutch professor and researcher Geert Hofstede, and is available via the Hofstede Centre’s website. Here you can assess and compare cultures on six dimensions (quite different from the COI).


Neither tool lets you query for similar cultures, but you can select individual countries and compare them to one another. Also, neither tool will tell you outright if the five creative dimensions correlate across cultures, but it’s a better approach to leveraging HBR’s insights into creativity than simply trying to replicate your advertising creative across different cultures and hoping for the same results. At least you are now empowered to better assess whether creative dimensions that play well in Germany are also likely to translate well into other countries and cultures for which you have advertising responsibility.

The true power of HBR’s research will be revealed over time as people match cultures against the five creative dimensions. That is the Holy Grail.

If you want to learn how to do this well, and how to develop your Cultural Intelligence (CQ), your best bet is to reach out to the Najafi Global Mindset Institute at the Thunderbird School of Global Management and find out where you rank in the Global Mindset Inventory (YouTube), so that you can learn how to best exploit these cultural mapping tools.