Lost in Translation? Why Localisation Is Crucial in Global Communications

To be authentic is to be true to who you are. But for global brands, that is easier said than done. How can you convey a consistent message and corporate identity in upwards of 20 languages? How do you appeal to cultures that have drastically different expectations? The first step is to know your readers.

A brand’s personality is built on its tone of voice. The words and expressions a brand uses help us form an opinion about it. And when companies hit the right tone, we are much more likely to trust them and be more receptive to their messages. Tone of voice is therefore a fundamental element in authenticity. However, once translation and localisation are involved, the matter becomes much more complex. A tone of voice that works well in one language may come across as stale or over the top in another country.

A Corporate Identity Crisis?

To begin with, it definitely pays to have your content translated. Figures from independent market research company Common Sense Advisory underline this fact. According to their survey, over 72% of global consumers prefer to shop online in their own native language, and 55% only buy products from websites that provide them with information in their mother tongue. However, many global companies may rely on multiple different translation agencies, as well as machine translation tools. Without careful quality checks, the results often lack emotion and consistency. In the worst case, they could even make the company look ridiculous. KFC’s infamous mistranslation of “Finger Lickin’ Good” told customers in China to “Eat your fingers off”. While we can all laugh about gaffes like this, they can do lasting damage to a company’s reputation – especially in technical or B2B contexts.

Of course, blunders like this are relatively rare. But many translations still miss the mark and fail to capture the feeling and nuance of the original text. Like many bilinguals, I feel my personality changing when I communicate in another language. This phenomenon affects companies too. If using external translators and writers, long-term partnerships and ongoing communication are essential to achieve the best results. After all, to successfully convey the core identity of a brand, you first need to take the time to really understand it. Machine translation is becoming more accurate, but hasn’t yet reached the point where it can correctly recognise and express a brand’s personality and emotion.

Play to Your Strengths

Localisation involves much more than translation. While that might sound daunting, it actually offers an excellent opportunity to alter preconceptions in specific target markets or focus on your strengths in a particular region. WWF, for example, has tailored its country-specific websites to the issues that matter most in each region, such as local wildlife or national conservation initiatives. You simply type in a country or region to find relevant content. PayPal is another company that sets a great example of how to localise. Not only the copy, but also the visual content is tailored to each local market. Even the screenshots showing PayPal transactions have been altered for specific countries to include products and currencies relevant to that nation. In a world where customer centricity and individualised experiences are more important than ever, no detail is too small.

Five Tips for Brand Localisation

  • Build a strong core brand: A well-thought-out positioning strategy and solid core brand provide a good basis for consistent communications in any language. While localised campaigns may have their own ‘flavour’, your brand identity will still shine through.
  • Adapt your offering: The one-size-fits-all approach no longer gets results. Content and campaigns should be tweaked according to their relevance and importance in the target regions.
  • Don’t just translate; transcreate: Although there are often dozens of ways to translate a sentence, sometimes it’s better to think of something new. Take Nike, for example: with no meaningful Chinese translation for “Just Do It”, the company ran the slogan “Use sports” in China. To locals, this is a much more powerful message.
  • Say it with pictures: A picture is worth a thousand words… or, at least, it can be. Visual content should be adapted to its audience. Hand gestures, animals, and even sports have different meanings and associations in different cultures – and should be used with caution.
  • Look to the locals: Because native speakers and ‘in-country’ copywriters are best-positioned to communicate authentically. Writing in your mother tongue allows you to play with a wider vocabulary and be more sensitive to tone of voice. At the same time, local content teams are much more likely to be up to date with current trends and cultural nuances – and can provide valuable feedback.

Think Global, Speak Local

Virtually all global companies were once small businesses focused on a local market. In an increasingly globalised world, there is a tendency towards standardising marketing communications as much as possible. However, there is a hidden danger in this: without localisation, global companies risk diluting their personality and losing their authenticity. But with a solid core brand and a little localisation expertise, you can stay true to your roots and bring your message across in any language or region you want to.

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