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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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