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Lost in Translation — How Do Linguistic Differences Affect Global Marketing?

I've lived in various parts of the world over the last few years, and although I'm one of those people who hardly ever watches television, even I've managed to pick up on the fact that the nature and content of commercials, advertisements and marketing ploys differs pretty substantially across cultures.

Growing up in India for instance, my commercial-viewing experience consisted mainly of happy housewives expertly wielding the latest in cookware; cricket players endorsing just about anything; and bands of convulsing, hip-thrusting movie stars singing about Pepsi or Coke to blaring Bollywood music.

In England the advertisements seemed to focus more on supermarket chains: Sainsbury's, Tesco, Asda and Safeway. And of course there were enough ads for beer to keep Homer drooling all day long should he make a trans-atlantic trip. The commercials seemed to often aim to draw their audience in through humor, with less of a focus on the attributes of the product.

And then of course there are the American commercials. Although there are some ads out there that are superbly researched and orchestrated, I like day-to-day advertising in the U.S. the least: for one thing there's far too much of it (particularly car insurance and fast food commercials — like we need any more Oreo sundaes...) For another, the marketing is far less subtle. Personally, and I'm pretty sure I'm not alone on this one, I think people are less inclined to watch a commercial that emphasizes the fact that they are being sold something, than to watch one that tries to engage them on another level.

As a London acquaintance pointed out: "British ads are more understated, more laid back. They use fewer superlatives than American ones. They often try to get the audience to like the product by using humor and quirkiness, while American ads are far more about proclaiming how great they are.'"

But even leaving aside the more subtle cultural specificities that tend to color advertisements in various parts of the world, recently an article on marketing in the International Herald Tribune made me pause to think about something as base and obvious as the effect of language on marketing.

The article cites a survey commissioned by translation services company SDL International, stating that according to the corporate marketing managers surveyed, 'language' and 'translation issues' are the biggest obstacles to 'managing a brand effectively in global markets.'

The writer points out that while some leading brands marketed themselves differently in different cultures, traditionally, companies have been hung up on the idea of preserving and propagating brand consistency at all costs: consistency was equated with quality. Nowadays, with the advent of the Internet and the globalization of brands, the idea of consistency remains strong, but its implementation seems to be increasingly problematic.

How does one manage to ensure trans-cultural consistency without a brand's core message being lost in translation? As the Tribune emphasizes — websites, direct mailings and even instruction manuals can be the victims of inconsistency, "all of which can hurt a brand if the content is inconsistent with its values."

The SDL survey reveals that this problem is hitting American companies particularly hard — perhaps because, due to the presence of a strong national market, American marketers have not really been as hard pressed to adapt their materials to regional audiences until recently. This unlike their European counterparts, who have historically been forced to adjust their strategies to surmount the constraints created by their relatively small domestic markets.

"Broadly speaking, American organizations are very, very slow in terms of their understanding of language," Chris Boorman, chief marketing officer at SDL told the Tribune. "They often take an old-fashioned, arrogant, and I would go so far as to say a colonial approach."

"Language is becoming a competitive advantage," he said. "If you can deliver your product in a way that looks like it was developed in that country, you have a competitive advantage." Statistics reveal that English is less dominant on the Internet than it used to be, with languages like Chinese, Japanese and Spanish gaining increasingly significant ground.

Boorman's comments seem to imply that companies need to produce content that can be adapted to suit a variety of markets, or perhaps that companies like his that provide translation services are the key players to the solution.

Susan Douglas, Professor of International Business and marketing at NYU's Stern School, notes that the creation of marketing material depends on the particular product and region it is to be directed at. She explains that some brands like Axe, which are targeted to a younger segment tend to follow a uniform marketing strategy worldwide, while others like Lux tend to have very different advertising campaigns in different countries.

With regard to language in particular, she maintains that a crucial consideration is whether the product is trying to convey information or an image. In the case of an internationally marketed French perfume for instance, it may be desirable to maintain the language as French as rather than conveying information, the aim is to convey an image.

How do you think globalization and the growth of the Internet is affecting, or is likely to affect, global brand marketing strategies — particularly in terms of language?

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  • Alice Korngold

    This post illuminates just how important it is to build teams comprised of people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives in order to create products, services, and communications strategies that are relevant to a variety of audiences. In my world - helping to build and strengthen nonprofit boards of directors - the key to success is to identify and recruit candidates from a variety of backgrounds in order to imagine and achieve an organization's greater potential in serving communities. For-profit boards will be more effective in building shareholder wealth, if they, as well as their management teams, and their advertising agencies, are far more creative and aggressive in recruiting people from a deeper and richer pool of talent.

  • Mauricio Uribe

    Language is important, of course. It is, however just a part of the whole picture. American companies need to truly understand that the world is (literally) OUT there. This means they have to ship their products outside (which takes time, money and administrative toil), they need to export stuff and they need to adapt to several customs and government standards. Quite often they fail to deliver and lose market share to europeans, japanese and --more recently-- hindu and chinese competitors (who, by the way, grew out of serving international markets).

    They usually leave it all up to local dealers (let they figure it out how to get to the market and so on), but their inward focus on the way things should work (i.e. just the way they work in the US) can lead to "translation losses"... big time!. Would you be consciously willing to leave the "service experience" of your valued customers up to a third-party that will most likely be mad at your organization due to lack of support and unmet promises?

    One might think such translation losses would eventually jump out of some report, customer interview or something... right? This would be the first step towards fixing the whole situation... and so it is for a handful of well managed, mostly small companies.

    Many (but certainly not all) large, NYSE traded companies devoted to "add Shareholder Value" have taken it way too seriously and way too far to be sustainable anymore --my personal point of view, this is... but whereas I acknowledge a little PR and shareholder-driven marketing would help increase the company's share price, none is going to convince me that PR and make-up alone are going to fuel companies down the next 10 years... they need to focus on their customers if they want to be sustainable... and this customer focus is precisely what's being publicly neglected when companies fail to deliver to markets they have committed to serve--.

    I don't think it's a matter of arrogance (think of Apple decision to not to market the iPhone in Latin America. That's an arrogant move, but it's quite consistent with their strategy and it's so straightforwardly put that whether people may not like it, they do not grow false expectations). It's a matter of keeping promises, and keeping promises implies making [usually big] efforts that can only be justified by an objective that sits above the pain and hassle of such efforts. I call it caring for customers.

    Old neighborhood stores survived for many years. Some really good old neighborhood grocery stores still survive despite being continuously under attack by supermarkets, discount stores, online retailers, etc. Their survival is a profitable (sustainable) one, and the key to it is, precisely, delivering what their customers want. This is achieved through decades of listening to their customers, of helping them out, of adapting product lines to local tastes (a "Long Tail" of groceries here), in short: by caring for the customer.

    So, if companies really care for their customers (not just badly want to grab their money --kind of the difference between love and plain lust--) they will find the way to get to them, adapt and deliver. Language, mentality, localized product features and so on... all that will come along (provided their interest for customers is genuine). On the other hand, If they don't truly care about those customers abroad, they should better turn around and lower the expectations for nowadays their reputation could feel the backlash from not caring of their [global] market base.

  • Allroads

    My Marketing 101 teacher at Thunderbird asked what was the difference between a want and a need, and I replied a good brand manager.

    As an American living in China (6 years on the mainland), nearly every company who came into this market with the same game plan fell flat.

    While in America, the marketing is very directed at the feelings a product will bring to the buyer, in China the primary successful emotional drivers have been the tie to family and how the product will enable the success of the children.

    Further, just as the southern and northwestern parts of the U.S. would require a different approach, so do China's 31 provinces (which I break into 5 distinct regions based on economics, logistics, and spending habits).


  • Walt Kania

    My experience suggests that virtually all marketing content should be at least tweaked for local markets. Or even re-cast entirely.

    That's because the most persuasive, engaging, and informative stuff usually relies a great deal on idiom and cultural context. And on cadences and turns of phrase that are distinct.

    I didn't realize this until I was charged with creating marketing materials and presentations (in English) that could be used virtually anywhere worldwide, even with customers who spoke English as a second or third language.

    The only way to make the content 'universal' was to make it bland and lifeless, coldly correct, and mechanical. And no one particularly liked it. I suspect by trying to make content work 'everywhere' you get content that works nowhere.

  • Bryan

    I am a US citizen but I lived in Germany for a number of years. I agree with Boorman, language is definitely a competitive advantage. One of the keys to success in a foreign market is to create an image as if the product came from that locale. Of course there are exceptions to the rule. For example, if you are trying to sell a good German beer in the USA. You would probably want to use references to Germany or the German language and advocate a German feel to the product. However for such products as software, the text must be concise and foreign text will not look good.
    I have in the past worked for US companies in Germany and German companies in the US. My experience has been that the German companies were unwilling to relinquish control to the US subsidiary and allow the locals to localize their products. This created a huge disconnect with the customers. I could understand why the language in the US publications and marketing materials was the way it was, because I speak both English and German. However to the average customer/potential customer it appeared unintelligent. For this reason I'm sure a lot of the marketing materials that were sent out were simply thrown away, and the chance to reach the recipient was lost.