Many companies aspire to go global at one point or another. For good reason, of course: limiting yourself to just one market can and will be detrimental to growth in the long term. Translating and localising your website, product or software is a good first step on your way to global markets, but truly reaching your target audience and culture will require thinking about all your content from a more international perspective. This means much more than simply the language it’s written in.
This text intentionally discusses cultures and regions, not origin countries and the “rest of the world”. A typical approach to expanding your market from one country to others would be to try to reach as much people at once as possible. In reality, however, there are already a lot of companies doing this, so you’re most likely going to end up as just a drop in an ocean of competitors. A more realistic – not to mention economically feasible – starting point might be to start from a handful of core markets and build up from there.
It might feel a little backwards, but going global begins from understanding local target markets. Did you, for example, know that Singles’ Day, celebrated on November 11, is one of the most important shopping events of the year in China, and a fantastic opportunity for an informed company to make a lot of profit with a targeted discount campaign? Especially if they also know that the Chinese prefer prices ending with eights (48.88), not nines (49.99).
Each target market should ultimately be thought of as a separate locale and all content built to fit that particular culture. This doesn’t mean that you couldn’t already begin to take your global aspirations into account in everything that you do. Quite the opposite, there are a lot of potential problems that can be considered in advance. So, if you are thinking about going global, consider at least the following.
Does your platform have internal limitations?
Each language and region has a different set of conventions, and the sooner you build your system around them, the easier time you’ll have. Text length is one good example of this. Many pages have a Search button, which in French would read the much longer Rechercher. A paragraph of text may also suddenly be several lines longer – or even shorter – after translation. Does your UI allow texts to change length or does this destroy the entire view? What happens if, in the future, you’re looking to add support for Arabic or Hebrew, both of which are read and written from right to left?
Start-ups and established companies alike should also always avoid “hardcoding” text that the end user will interface with inside the code. Separating these texts into external files, from which the text is retrieved based on the language that is currently in use, is an absolute prerequisite for releasing your interface in several languages and, ultimately, going global. Both UIs and websites should also consider various conventions: the order in which the date is written, the correct decimal separator, whether the currency symbol comes before or after the price, the first day of the year or even the week.
Texts are rarely just a bulleted list of facts, as they need to be interesting enough for the reader to actually sit through the entire thing. One way of adding colour to a text is using cultural references or metaphors. A Finn, for example, might try to spice up a text with rally references, which might leave people from other people confused or even give them the impression that the text was not intended for them.
This doesn’t mean that texts should always be completely homogeneous and stripped of metaphors, but writers should pay attention to cultural references and know their audience. The Finnish sauna, for example, might have positive connotations of cleanliness in Japan, whereas in the US, a sauna will most likely be interpreted as something inherently sexual. Similarly, Germans and Finns might have very different expectations on how humour can be used in a text or how rigidly it must stay on topic. Likewise, in written Russian, it is better to express your thoughts in a slightly fancier and longer way, or the text may appear a bit lacking.
So, the more important the readability of the text is, the better it is to copyedit and localise it thoroughly.
Colours, images, symbols
An image is said to be worth a thousand words, which is why companies spend a lot of time and effort on honing the visual appearance of their products to perfection. How you present your product in one culture may not, however, work in the intended way everywhere in the world.
Colours may seem neutral at first thought, but they evoke different meanings in different parts of the world. While white is the colour of purity in the West, it means death in the majority of Asia. In Latin America, purple carries the same meaning. Rising stock prices are marked in green and falling in red in the West, but in China, it’s the exact opposite. This is because in Asia, red is the colour of fortune and celebration.
Images of people are also worth careful consideration. In North America, having pictures of only white men can feel a bit crude and including at least some minorities is pretty much the expectation. In Russia, however, it’s a very different matter. Just this year, a supermarket chain had to apologise publicly for featuring a gay couple in their advertisement and a sushi chain for featuring a black man. And should women, for example, cover their heads in pictures that are used in the Middle East, or can you use European-looking models in Asia? This is the exact reason why many cosmetics companies often choose to use local models.
Symbols are a good way to reduce language dependence and make things more accessible, but only if they are used correctly. A gear icon will let you access settings and pressing a globe icon usually allows you to select the language you want to use. But whereas the thumbs up emoji 👍 means OK in the West, in the Middle East it carries the meaning of “up yours”. The 👌 emoji is used pretty widely in Europe as another OK symbol, but in Brazil, it’s considered very offensive and in the US, it has grown so popular among white supremacists that the Anti-Defamation League has listed it as a potential hate symbol.
Do you want to stand out or look fully local?
Not all brands want to blend in, of course, as foreignness can also be used to as an advantage and differentiating factor. A Finnish company importing bast shoes into Japan would naturally want to make their Finnishness a key marketing point, just as most wine bottles usually feature text in French, Italian or Spanish in the most visible positions. In China, a foreign product can even be thought to be of a higher quality than a locally made. Apple, for instance, deliberately and successfully breaks Asian conventions by selling its products in white packages, as it is part of their brand and a way to stand out.
Many international chains have also infiltrated countries so successfully that it can be almost impossible to discern between a foreign and local product or online store. Nestlé, for example, owns a great deal of food brands and products around the world with a very local look.
Here are three general guidelines:
- Focus on the local and avoid lumping “the rest of the world” together.
- Think about going global already, even if you’re only considering it in the future.
- It’s impossible to understand everything from the outside. Get local help.
Source: John Yunker, Think Outside the Country: A Guide to Going Global and Succeeding in the Translation Economy (Byte Level Books, 2017).