International Marketing Communications: It’s a Language Thing

International marketing communications

Marketing communication is, by its nature, a form of dialogue. Just as with face-to-face communication, your international marketing efforts are sure to be better understood and significantly more effective when you address your target audience in their own language.

Meaning is key, but perception is even more important. Marketing communication in multiple territories features many similarities. Although imagery, film and graphics can smooth your way, cultural differences can trip up even the most experienced marketer. Even more so when it comes to language.

Standardised, adapted or specialised marketing strategy?

When planning an international marketing campaign, it is wise to acknowledge from the start that communication goals and messaging will differ from country to country. You might start off with a standardised approach with a few local adaptations – but some elements will need a location-specific strategy.

Key aspects to consider when planning international marketing strategy

  • Define and understand your global audience. Assess the peculiarities and cultural differences of audiences in each territory.
    • Will aspects such as music, design or colour resonate differently in your target markets?
    • Are provocative images or gender issues going to cause you problems in some countries?
    • Is the stage of your product category’s life cycle common across all markets?
    • Will your audience engage more readily with formal or more colloquial language? Is humour relevant, and to what extent?
    • If you are marketing in the individualistic USA, your approach might be more direct than in the UK, where subtle persuasion is more effective. If Germany is your primary market, then your approach will need to be informative, allowing people to make their own decisions. Know and understand those differences in your approach to marketing communications.
  • Work out your USP and apply to each culture as a desktop exercise. Ask yourself, does it still make sense in countries as disparate as Australia, India and Belgium, for example?
  • Establish your international marketing communications mix. Is it the same in every country or will you need to tweak it? Where can you standardise across multiple territories (with social media platforms like Facebook or Instagram, for example). Where will your media choices need to be more targeted (WeChat or Sina Weibo in China)?
  • Consider your brand and the elements that support it. Do they reflect the cultures you want to sell into?
  • Think carefully about message and culture. Categories such as food, hygiene products or alcohol can present many differences and challenges depending on where you are marketing them.

Based on your choices, you should define and evaluate what success looks like in each country or territory. These measures may vary wildly and need to be factored into your overall strategy.

International marketing channels

international marketing channels

It is important that you choose your channel mix carefully. Advertising is the most high-profile route to market – and the best if you need a more standardised thematic approach. But other major channels include sales promotions, PR, direct marketing (offline and email), sponsorship and promotion, plus shows and events. All of these will need careful planning for individual markets.

Website localisation

Your website is of huge importance. It’s likely your site’s address will feature on all channels and media you choose. Even if not, then consumers will pop your brand name into Google and find their way to you anyway. If they decide on a category search in their native language (for example, bathroom mirrors, Badspiegel, badeværelsesspejle, miroirs salle de bain or specchi per bagno) then you had better have your local search engine marketing (SEM) and SEO in order. Website, blog and app localisation need to be high on your list of considerations.

International video marketing

international video translation

Video is on the rise globally. A well-shot film can do wonders for your brand and products in multiple markets. However, it will pay (in time and cost) to plan your marketing video as a global piece from the start. Don’t try to translate it or subtitle it later. Script it in several languages, consider cultural norms in each country and shoot all versions in one go rather than returning to it again and again for endless edits.

Think language specialist

You may well be part of a multinational organisation and, if so, can draw on native speakers in offices around the globe for advice. But do those people have marketing, cross-cultural and linguistic expertise?

It may make more sense to centralise your linguistic requirements and planning of your international marketing campaign so that you can retain control of all the outputs. A translation or localisation company with a proven track record can support you with end-to-end project management. With a single point of contact they should be engaged at the planning stage to save time and effort further down the track.

Messaging strategy

Keep your messaging as simple as possible from the start when planning an international marketing campaign. The more nuanced and ‘clever’ it is in your own language, the harder it will be to convey that subtlety in other languages.

Identify key topics and terminology and discuss with your chosen translation or localisation partner; they draw on extensive in-country expertise and will identify opportunities and pitfalls, enabling you to make informed strategic decisions.

Risk vs reward

Marketing and trading internationally can bring huge rewards to those who think it through, plan it well and take the time to understand their target markets. Always remember this is a dialogue, not a lecture. Your marketing communications strategy needs to acknowledge cultural and linguistic differences while making the most of the economies of scale open to you on a multinational stage.


Bite the wax tadpole

Despite the overall professionalism of marketers around the world, mistakes do still happen.

HSBC famously had to rebrand its whole global banking operation after its “Assume Nothing” campaign was mistranslated as “Do Nothing” in many parts of the world. The exercise cost them $10 million – but they did end up with a far more translation-friendly tagline, “The World’s Private Bank”.

Ford used the slogan “Every car has a high quality body” when they launched an advertising campaign in Belgium. Only to find the mis-translation suggested “Every car has a high quality corpse”. The campaign died.

Pepsodent tried to sell the teeth-whitening benefits of their toothpaste in Asian countries, where betel-chewing locals much preferred the blackened molars the nut produced. They didn’t sell much at all.

Parker Pens introduced a ballpoint pen into the Mexican market with the slogan, “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you.” However, Parker’s marketing team used the word “embarazar” which they thought meant “to embarrass”. It didn’t. The ad they launched read locally as “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant”.

And if you wondered about the tadpole-related sub-heading above and haven’t heard the story: it’s the translation into a Chinese dialect of the brand name Coca Cola. A mistake not spotted until thousands of advertising signs had been printed and distributed for their launch into that huge market.

Getting it right

You need to spend a great deal of time working and re-working marketing communications copy in your own mother tongue, before you’re satisfied with the end result. Your brand is one of your greatest assets – it’s precious, and a strong brand identity often takes years to build. Before you venture into international markets, make sure you follow a defined process to get your marketing communications right. As the above examples demonstrate, even large, multinationals can get it wrong.

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