Language barrier or cultural barrier?
So you’re thinking about taking your business beyond your home market? Obviously, you will need marketing materials for your new prospective customers. You know that your existing literature, including anything you have online, is focused on your home market, so you will at least get the stuff translated.
What if you’re a US company starting to woo European customers? You already know the Old World is much more fragmented than your American home market, but close to 50 countries and 230 (yes, you read that right, two-hundred-and-thirty) languages? Ouch.
Or perhaps you’re a European company looking to expand into Asia. While the number of independent countries is about the same as in Europe, they speak 2,197 languages. Even worse.
Of course, it won’t take you long to find out what the languages of your most potential markets are. That will probably narrow down your language versions to maybe a dozen or even less, and it makes perfect sense to cover “the rest” with English-language material, given that English is pretty much the world language for business.
Your troubles are not over yet, however.
To look and sound credible, you will need to take local customs into account. There are hundreds of details to consider. Did you know, for example, that in France telephone numbers are grouped in twos, often with dots in-between, with the exception of one-digit area codes? Or that in Hungary, names are presented with the family name first?
Do you know whether the person you’re quoting is Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese or Korean from the name? When you’re referring to the esteemed Vietnamese researcher Nguyen Van Tran (fictitious example) for the second time, do you know whether to use “he” or “she”, or is it Mr (or Mrs?) Nguyen, Van or Tran? If you come across the abbreviation Sp. z o.o., do you know whether they’re talking about captive wild animals or something else (this is a limited company in Polish).
If you go really overboard in your home-market materials and make reference to sports, for example, be advised that in the UK and India, baseball analogies won’t fly. They play cricket. In Europe, “football” means soccer, so be careful with your terminology.
The way you talk to your home audience may look like overkill. Europeans tend to favour shorter, more concise narrative than Americans and don’t want to be bothered with every nut and bolt in your system (until you’re talking to the technical experts). If you’re an American company selling to Europe, cut back the superlatives and fluff, provide proof instead. Europeans know full well that nobody produces “the ultimate” anything.
What I’m driving at is that you should always use someone to adapt your marketing materials who knows what she (or he, some languages don’t make a gender difference) is doing. It doesn’t always have to be a native, but it always needs to be a professional.
A professional knows better than make disastrous spelling mistakes (for some reason, typos most often produce profanities, such as here), confuse genders or force-translate untranslatable wordplay. A professional prevents you from shooting yourself in the foot by using metaphors, similes or parables that go against your target market’s cultural or religious custom. A professional recreates your message to fit the target market’s way of thinking (example: “made in the US” won’t be a quality argument in markets that believe in German engineering).
In conclusion, when you’re expanding outside your home market, you’re not only dealing with language. You also need to consider local culture, religion, customs, beliefs and mindset. To succeed, you need a capable professional to adapt your materials. DIY export marketing is doomed to failure.