A brand is a widely recognised product, trademark, company or person. Its recognition, usually positive, has been built through marketing. A brand lives in our minds: it encapsulates its target, can create added value for a product or a service and have an impact on its user’s identity.
Iconic brands have become solidly established in our minds as a result of decades of goal-oriented work. Who wouldn’t believe that they will be refreshed when drinking a cold, genuine Coca-Cola (even though we know that the black liquid packed with sugar or artificial sweeteners is far from beneficial for us) or that they are almost like Marilyn Monroe when using Chanel 5 (even if people cannot smell the fragrance from under your windbreaker when you stand in the queue at the local supermarket) or that they become the king of the road when driving their BMW (although being stuck in a traffic jam in November with slush splashing all around isn’t much like being a king). A brand empowers us and turns people’s heads. It’s desirable and even its name sells.
A brand can be global (like the ones mentioned above), local or something in between. Every marketing specialist wants to increase the recognition of the brand they represent by choosing a mix of measures. In practice, this mix always includes some linguistic elements, such as text or speech. When the brand’s target audience consists of speakers of more than one language, you need someone to ensure multilingualism. Usually, multilingualism refers to translations, but content creation in the target language is, of course, also an option.
Brand and language
Perceptions associated with a brand are created in a person’s mind in the language shared by them and the brand. Ideally, this is the person’s native language. Language is a sensitive issue. Poor or somehow unsuitable language often makes people think that the brand is also poor or at least less valuable. The general public perhaps does not pay much attention to minor linguistic errors, but communications and marketing professionals will certainly see them. Blatant failures will definitely be noticed. A case in point is Amazon’s recent launch of their Swedish website in late 2020. Amazon had localised their entire offering targeted at the Swedish market into Swedish, most probably using a poor machine translation tool and human review had been either skipped entirely or done too selectively. People saw translations that meant something completely different to what was shown in product pictures – some amusing and some naughty.
How does a bad translation affect a brand?
A brand failure refers to an incident that damages a brand. A bad translation is a typical brand failure. In the best-case scenario, bad translations may cause amusement and some rolling of eyes, and may even provide the brand with additional, unplanned visibility through news and social media commotion. Probably none of the Swedish customers who ordered products from Amazon suffered any consequences worse than mild amusement or exasperation when browsing the site and noticing that Easter chicks had been translated as penises; however, without a doubt, the situation was very embarrassing for Amazon.
In the worst-case scenario, bad translations undermine a brand’s value significantly or cause damage that must be compensated with money. The more valuable and recognised the brand, the higher the bar. It’s easier to accept poor language in an advertisement or packaging texts for a cheap run-of-the-mill product than, for instance, typos or stylistic or terminological mistakes in a glossy lifestyle publication. A valuable brand always entails the image of overall quality, down to the finest detail.
Also, bad translations are always a sign of not recognising the value of translations to the brand’s customers and stakeholders. Not enough money is allocated to translations in marketing budgets or there is not a sufficient number of people to coordinate them. An inadequate translation budget is an indication that the importance of translations is not recognised in the company – or the company does not care about it. Or that there simply is no money and the decision has been made to simply do what can be done.
How to avoid bad translations
If the decision to publish content in multiple languages is made (and why wouldn’t it be made?), appropriate preparations are needed. Multilingualism and translations are not an obligatory burden that comes at the end of a project but are at the core of a brand and marketing. You have to find the optimal translation partner or at least ensure there is sufficient competence and resources within your own organisation. It costs money to get translations done: the source language content didn’t create itself and it wasn’t cheap either. Similarly, the translated content doesn’t magically appear out of thin air for next to nothing. In fact, translations that are intended for public distribution with the aim of helping the brand conquer the world shouldn’t even be cheap as they inevitably require a considerable amount of human input.
A competent translation partner can help you plan the budget, schedule, phases and project responsibilities for brand-related translations, the correct balance of translation technology and human input as well as the tone of voice and impact that you hope the different language versions will have. Together with the translation partner, you can also look at what you can actually get with the budget you’ve set aside for translations and ensure that the value of your brand does not decrease.
In conclusion, you can avoid bad translations by facing the facts: the importance of translations, an appropriate budget and a good partner. Maybe it’s time you made a New Year’s resolution about translations.