Localization Basics: Avoiding Common Missteps When Targeting International Marke

Ever wonder how so many well-intended translations go so terribly wrong? Take, for example, the sign I recently saw at a Paris hotel asking me to “leave (my) values at the front desk,” or the “Please don’t walk on the grass” sign in Beijing that told me the “green grass (was) longing for my cherishing,” or the sign at a cocktail lounge in Norway that stated “Please don’t have children at the bar.”

As a well-traveled professional and 12-year veteran of the language industry, I see examples of inaccurate translations almost daily. While at first glance they may seem funny, the consequences of translation errors can have extremely negative effects on a company’s image.

Consumers abroad are usually willing to overlook a tourist’s mistakes, but they are much less forgiving when it comes to a business’s mistakes, especially when that business is trying to establish a long-term presence in the market. Hence the topic for this blog: Understanding the difference between literal “translation” and adaptive “localization.”

Localization Defined

Localization has been a common buzz word in the language industry since the field came to prominence in the early 1990s. While the term is often used interchangeably with “translation,” localization involves much more than a word-for-word rendering of source content in another language.

In simple terms, localization means creating a version of a product and its corresponding documentation and marketing campaigns (whether online or offline) that are appropriate for a target audience in another part of the world.

With regard to software, localization includes translating menus, dialogs, and online help while adjusting the user interface to accommodate longer words or foreign characters. In the case of hardware, localization might involve making the product compatible with different power sources or legal requirements, in addition to translating corresponding user documentation. Beyond a mere translation of online copy, website localization ensures that images, colors, dates, weights, measurements, and layouts are appropriate and appealing to the intended target market.

In all cases, localization requires better planning, better product design, and better writing of source-language content on the front end. On the back end, it requires industry-related experience, cultural expertise, and linguistic competence.

Unlike straightforward translation, true localization must consider the following:

1) The Target Audience

In order to correctly adapt one’s materials to local needs, a localization effort must be based on a comprehensive understanding of the target culture. Sensitivities to current social, political, technological and economic environments—all of which have an impact on language—must be considered.

One must also understand the habits and preferences of prospective buyers. Having worked as a localization consultant to the automotive industry for over 10 years, I find it fascinating how various manufacturers market their products in different parts of the world. For example, a well-known European car manufacturer’s advertisements emphasize safety in Switzerland, performance in Germany, status in France, and durability and safety in the United States. Obviously this company has done its homework and knows what is important to its consumers in each respective market.

Alternatively, a major US bed manufacturer once tried to sell its product in Japan, only to find out after failed (and expensive) marketing campaigns that most Japanese sleep on futons.

Industry-experienced localization consultants, along with in-country marketing specialists, can help you better understand your target audience’s behavior and lifestyle.

2) The Target Language (Including Slang and Colloquialisms)

When Swedish appliance maker, Electrolux, began marketing its products in the UK, the slogan for its vacuum cleaners was translated as “Nothing Sucks Like An Electrolux.” While this catchphrase accurately described one of the vacuum’s key selling points (its powerful suction) and was a huge success in Great Britain, imagine the potential impact if this same ad had been run in the United States where the double meaning of the word “suck” makes the slogan laughable.

As an age-old adage advises, one never gets a second chance to make a first impression. This is particularly true in international markets. It is therefore important to speak to international consumers in a way that shows their business is valued and their environment, needs, and language are understood.

3) The Cultural Relevance of the Product

Studies show that target market consumers are more likely to buy or use foreign products that have been appropriately localized.

Years ago when a major beverage producer introduced 2-liter bottles of its globally popular soft drink in Spain, sales were sluggish. Market research revealed that few Spaniards owned refrigerators with shelves large enough to accommodate a 2-liter bottle. Once the bottle size was modified, product sales went through the roof.

The lesson is that just because something works at home does not necessarily guarantee it will work elsewhere. A thorough localization effort must specifically craft the product, its documentation, and its campaigns for the intended target market.

4) The Cultural Competitiveness of the Product

A French beer maker had difficulty entering the saturated US market when it promoted its beverage as “American-brewed.” The decision to market the beer as an import helped sales increase dramatically.

This underscores the importance of knowing the target market. A skilled localization consultant, along with in-country employees, distributors, and marketing specialists, can offer valuable insight to your product’s marketability.

5) The Company’s Name and Slogan

A Japanese steel manufacturer once advertised a new steel product in the US with the acronym SHT (short for “Sumitomo High Toughness”). As if that wasn’t bad enough, the ad also stated that the product “was made to match its name.” Yikes.

Similarly, when US-based General Electric Company and Britain-based Plessey combined to create a new telecommunications giant in the late ’80s, they opted for a brand name they felt evoked technology and innovation, GPT. Short for GEC-Plessey Telecommunications, the name proved disastrous in France where GPT is pronounced “J’ai pété,” a term that refers to first-person flatulence.

On the flip side, Kodak, Exxon and Xerox are excellent examples of names that are designed to be easily pronounced around the world while having no specific meaning or implication.

Once again, a skilled localization consultant partnered with in-country employees and marketing specialists can help determine how your company’s name and slogan might be perceived by your target audience.

The Bottom Line

Fine-tuned localization is a great way to improve a company’s international brand image and increase sales, but doing so with little forethought can cause more harm than good.
Unfortunately, missteps such as those cited above are not uncommon in the world of international communications and actually do more to alienate one’s intended target market than attract it. It is important to remember when dealing with matters of localization that words (and their nuances) do matter, as do a product’s presentation, relevance, and marketability.

Whether engaged directly or through a localization supplier, a native-speaking professional linguist with industry-related experience and linguistic competence is essential to the success of any localization initiative. These professionals provide the competitive edge that helps differentiate localization from the less sophisticated approach of word-for-word translation.

It’s easy to make mistakes in other markets. For advice on how to improve your international brand image and grow your international business, contact me today at EC Innovations, a globalization partner for whom there is no such thing as a ‘foreign’ language.


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