Why Companies “Strike Out” With International Marketing

English may be the lingua franca of business, but many common marketing terms assume a familiarity with local cultural. Here are some things to consider when moving your message overseas.

Why Companies “Strike Out” With International Marketing

While it ought to be obvious that business practices vary from country to country, the popularity of global ad campaigns create an illusion that “what works here will work over there” as well. But make no mistake; Coke, Nike, Apple and other global brands work hard with brand consultants before rolling out international campaigns and even these guys get it famously wrong from time to time–see some the biggest mistakes here. Most of us don’t have the luxury or budget to hire local experts. So here are some tips for avoiding embarrassing international branding and marketing meltdowns:

  • Most pop culture references don’t travel well. Take sports references, for instance. “Swinging for the fences,” “striking out,” or “doing an end-around” are mostly meaningless outside the US. In a French campaign I ran last year, our local marketing person replaced a sports metaphor with a quote from Molière to make the same point.
  • Use of colloquial expressions should be avoided, even in other English-speaking countries. On an international sales call this week, a colleague today urged us to be the “belle of the ball” at an upcoming industry event; the phrase was completely meaningless to our overseas reps. Sometimes the differences are subtle. For a presentation at a UK conference, a local rep changed “the company’s secret sauce” into “the company’s secret ingredient” in order to convey the intended message.
  • Business values are not universal. For example, a survey that looked at the impact of digital distractions (e.g. email and instant messaging) in the workplace found that workers were severely impacted by their inability to focus on simple tasks. In the U.S. and in Germany, press interest centered on the survey’s conclusion that distraction created huge productivity losses that translated into wasted time and money. In the U.K. however, the press honed in on the distracted workers’ rude behavior to colleagues; productivity costs were not an issue.
  • It goes without saying that marketing materials like brochures, data sheets, e-books and white papers must be translated into local languages to be useful. When you work with translation bureaus, remember they do not understand the subtler points of your business. While their translation may be “correct,” the message could easily miss the mark. Have your local country manager, distributor, or partner review the text for domain accuracy. I don’t using automated translators without serious oversight.
  • Be careful how you use symbols or gestures in sales materials. These often have unintended meanings in foreign countries. Body language and hand gestures are particularly sensitive. Check with local reps before moving forward.

Most importantly, remember that it is impossible to always get it right; there are just too many local nuances to take everything into account. But working with local reps before going public should mitigate the worst mistakes. Bonne chance…Glück…or just plain good luck.

[Image: Flickr user Nathan Rupert]

About the author

A technology strategist for an enterprise software company in the collaboration and social business space. I am particularly interested in studying how people, organizations, and technology interact, with a focus on why particular technologies are successfully adopted while others fail in their mission.