Lost in translation: Why one size does not fit all when it comes to international marketing – part one

Once a business is successfully established in its country of origin, attention turns to possibilities further afield.

Senior management starts exploring new markets, rolling out websites and stores in foreign countries. It’s a logical move but just because you’ve been a success story in your own country, doesn’t mean you’ll be embraced with open arms in another.

Not all markets are the same in international marketing and there’s no prescribed set of marketing tools you can roll-out every time and guarantee the same results. Each country a business enters brings its own set of challenges – a new language, audience, culture and infrastructure.

In the first part of the series on international marketing, we take a look at how to make a good first impression in a new country for any business considering making its first move. We look at language, translation and localisation – how to be understood by your new audience, make sure you’re in demand and make a good first impression overseas.

Being understood

In the English speaking world, it’s easy to forget that our native tongue isn’t as popular as you’d think. English is the third most popular language spoken in the world behind Mandarin and Spanish, making Asia and South America the two biggest global markets for international businesses to expand into. English proficiency in these regions can be low, making translating your communications into local languages and regional variations such as Spanish and Portuguese essential if you want to be understood.

Once you’ve got your head around the language, the challenges don’t stop there. Not appreciating the complexities of the local language can make it easy to bemuse, offend or even anger people accidentally. One marketing message can’t simply be translated to every market – cultural values, norms, etiquette, humour and slang all add a further layer of complexity.

And there are some pretty hilarious examples of big brands getting it wrong out there – like when Ford introduced the Pinto in Brazil only to later realise when sales were non-existent that “Pinto” is slang for “tiny male genitals” in Brazil (Glantz, 2012). Or Kentucky Fried Chicken who discovered their slogan “finger lickin’ good” had literally been translated to “eat your fingers off” in China (Business Daily, 2013) – all cringe-worthy examples from big brands who should have known better.

And it’s not just your words you need to watch – even the basics such as the colour of your logo, website and retailers’ window displays need to be reconsidered in local markets. Colours symbolise very different things in different parts of the world – for example, red symbolises joy in parts of Asia but it signifies mourning in parts of Africa (Deseret News, 2011). To avoid unpleasant surprises, check various international colour charts or wheels and perform direct customer research for more detailed input. Small subtleties like this need to be taken into account especially when entering into a new market where first impressions really do count.

Catering for local tastes

Localising your message isn’t just about being understood it’s about refining it so it’s suitable for your new target market. And just because one country speaks the same language doesn’t mean they also share the same behaviours. This can mean that simply translating your message may miss the mark.

For example, the breakfast cereal market in Mexico represents a 56% value share while Venezuela represents only a 8% value share (Market Research World, 2006). Both countries share a common language but their consumption habits are worlds apart. Make sure you don’t just try to port your offer over to another country just to make translation cost-savings – it may mean make or break for your business proposition.

The secret to overcoming these barriers is localisation. Big box retailers such a Wal-mart diversify their stock to account for localised demands meaning what you may find in one store you may not find in another (Harvard Business Review, 2006). And it’s not just Wal-mart – Procter & Gamble introduced Curry Pringles in England and Funky Soy Sauce Pringles in Asia, while Frito-Lay developed Nori Seaweed Lay’s potato chips for Thailand and A la Turca corn chips with poppy seeds flavour for Turkey (Just Food, 2010). These suppliers understood that it’s far easier to cater for local tastes than to force feed people.

So the secret to making a good first impression is knowing your market. Meeting with people on the ground, understanding demand and the complexities of language means it’s a bigger job than simply translating your campaign.

You don’t need to reinvent your business but adapt it to the local demands – maintain the same core values and benefits that your brand brings and make sure you tailor it in a way that’s cost-efficient.

In part two of our guide, we look how to deal with variations in culture when it comes to international marketing – how you can manage sensitivities and maximise opportunities with your brand in foreign markets.