Big brands and marketing localization: Real-world takeaways


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It’s the simple, universal truth: Sometimes even with the best of intentions, things don’t go exactly as planned. A brand’s efforts in marketing localization are no exception.

This is the case whether we’re talking about a sprawling organization with offices in 15 countries or a company that’s just starting to go global for the first time.

The good news is that we can learn a lot from examples of marketing localization initiatives that didn’t strike a chord with locals—helping you make the right impression with your own localized campaigns.

Start with a global strategy, then think local

Just because a branding strategy works great in your home country doesn’t mean it will carry over successfully in additional markets. Making this assumption has led many big brands into murky marketing waters.

It’s all about effective multi-country brand management. Localization industry analyst firm, Common Sense Advisory, came up with a great metaphor to characterize the best way to approach it—different voices singing the same tune. Everyone is in harmony, yet each voice represents a unique market.

A repeating refrain to remember is that all marketing campaigns should be local.

Tap locals for input

Even if you need to make strategic decisions about marketing localization for a given country from thousands of miles away, make sure you check to see if your approach will work for that culture. A local marketing expert or team member should weigh in.

We mention this because it’s not unheard of for large corporations to strategize without first gathering local buy in.

Best Buy is known in the U.S. for its “big box” or large retail stores, but in China that business strategy proved difficult for a couple of reasons. It’s hard to find large spaces in Shanghai, but more importantly—locals prefer a smaller selection of products in high demand. Local China-based competitors opened up smaller, more successful stores nearby.

Best Buy closed its large stores there in 2011, but today it’s ramping up its China presence with a strategy that is localized for that market.

Takeaway: Local market conditions will play a critical role in your marketing localization efforts. Get a handle on the local market by consulting with employees based in the target country, who can lend insight into cultural expectations and impactful messaging.

Ensure local market resonance with quality steps

You might recall IKEA’s marketing localization mishap with its 2013 catalog for Saudi Arabia, in which they airbrushed a female model out of a graphic. It caused a backlash and generated lots of media coverage since it was an unsuccessful and off-putting effort to localize.

Again, they no doubt meant well—but showing the altered image to native Saudis before the catalog’s release would’ve saved them a lot of grief (and corrective-related expenses).

McDonald’s had a similar experience when they unveiled a billboard in the Midwestern U.S. that featured inaccurate copy in Hmong. The rendering of the words came out mashed together, making little sense to native Hmong speakers. Just a few days later, the local McDonald’s fixed the billboard copy. Still, they could’ve avoided this misstep with a final proof as part of the quality assurance process.

Takeaway: Every marketing localization initiative should include a final proof—and if it suits your business needs, a final post-formatted review by a native speaker and marketing expert is a good idea too.

Be flexible and open to adaptation

Even the world’s largest corporations and household brands need to adapt their taglines, slogans, product names and even their company names for local markets. Nokia’s smartphone known as Lumia has an unfortunate translation in Spanish, a slang word for prostitute. While Nokia decided not to change the name of this product, it did get them a lot of negative publicity when they initially rolled the phone out. Of course, this can be damaging to a brand’s image.

All too often it takes a strong public reaction to draw attention to an offensive name or tagline, which in some cases spurs a costly rebrand initiative—but why wait for this to happen?

In every aspect relating to your brand, it pays to think ahead for each market. Develop your overall brand voice, but make sure you’re singing a tailored tune that’s going to harmonize with a given locale’s expectations.

Google does a great job of transcreating its “I’m feeling lucky” copy on its search button in the different versions of its localized website. While the concept of luck may be acceptable in the U.S., it clashes with religious beliefs in some countries. That’s why Google changed the copy to “I trust in God” for its Pashto-speaking web users in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Takeaway: Be proactive, not reactive. If your brand is known for being quirky and fun, you can still maintain that tone—but the key is to do it in a way that resonates with locals. Adapt your marketing localization approach strategically for each locale.

Make the right impression in each market

Adapting marketing campaigns for different cultures is a complex journey, and it’s not always a straight road for many companies.

Want to hear directly from some big organizations about their marketing localization experiences? Join us at Brand2Global, where we’ll be sharing ideas and best practices, with speakers revealing stories of what worked and what didn’t.

We’re sponsoring and hosting the welcome cocktail reception, and we’ll also be putting on thought leadership sessions daily. Our own CEO, Shannon Zimmerman, will take the stage with a Sajan client representative to showcase how we’re helping companies enter new markets through website localization.

Can’t make it to London? Join in the Twitter conversations during the event by following @SajanTranslate, @GrainneMaycock, @Zimmermansm and @Brand2Global.

Rachel Chilson
Rachel is a marketing communications coordinator at Sajan, a world-recognized language translation services provider. Sign up for Sajan Blog posts to receive new translation best practices every week.


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