How to Avoid Cultural Missteps in Localization


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Making customers feel seen and understood is a critical, yet often overlooked, aspect of localization. As companies expand into new markets, the language they’re using must be accurate. That’s the baseline. The real challenge involves steering clear of cultural appropriation, stereotypes, slang and more. Hitting all the right notes with localization and language isn’t just a matter of soft skills; it could mean the difference between winning or losing international customers for good.

According to The Unbabel Global Multilingual CX Report, most customers view multilingual customer experiences (CX) as table stakes for organizations that want to thrive on a global scale. Over two-thirds (69%) of consumers believe it is extremely or very important that brands offer an end-to-end customer experience in their native language. More than half (52%) agreed that poor quality translations are an issue within the localized CX.

Beyond accuracy and quality alone, there’s plenty of room for improvement when it comes to cultural awareness and empathy in localization. Even as your business scales, consider these three areas of focus when communicating with a global customer base.

Include representative visuals

When asked about their challenges with global brands that offer localized experiences, one-third of survey respondents were bothered by a lack of representation, and 28% said they dislike a lack of diversity and inclusion among global brands.

Both of these challenges are connected, and show the importance of incorporating the right visuals and design when localizing content. Even if the language you use contains no glaring errors and is understandable, a lack of diversity, inclusion, and representation in imagery can leave customers feeling alienated and unsatisfied with their experience. In a promising sign, research from Shutterstock found that there has been a 26% global increase in content featuring racially diverse models. Even so, there’s a lot of room for improvement.

People are much more likely to relate to brand campaigns if the models or actors depicted look and act like them. Maintaining a holistic view of its multilingual and multicultural communications means incorporating the right people, so no customers are left feeling marginalized or excluded.

Avoid the stereotypes and slang

More importantly still, brands must understand the line between representation and stereotyping. The survey cited above shows that 22% of global consumers have a problem with stereotyping when it comes to their localized CX. Stereotyping happens when brands make too many assumptions or overgeneralizations of a social or cultural group. It often starts with good intentions, where companies are attempting to be more inclusive but ultimately miss the mark.

Localization professionals must do their homework or tap local talent to accurately capture the subtle nuances of how people in various regions interact. For example, Germany is a restrained, “low context” culture that typically suppresses their emotions, and may have difficulty picking up on non-verbal cues or body language. Or, in Korea, people value kibun, which refers to feelings, pride, and state of mind. For example, in Korean culture, telling a small fib to avoid insulting someone is preferred over being blunt and honest.

Along similar lines, it’s best to avoid using slang across multiple languages, as it might confuse customers, or even obscure the intended message when it’s translated. According to the survey, one in five consumers have been troubled by offensive use of slang or idioms in localization.

Understand appreciation vs. appropriation

There’s a big difference between appreciation vs. appropriation when trying to pay homage to another country within a brand campaign. Appreciation involves taking the time to study and understand another culture to broaden your perspective and connect with people, while appropriation involves selecting and adopting a single element of another culture for your own interest and gain. Sadly, 20% of survey respondents have been challenged by appropriation in their local CX.

Many countries such as Japan have rich cultures that are often fetishized by Western society. As a result, these groups can be especially sensitive to potential cultural appropriation, even if it’s intended as appreciation. Over a quarter (26%) of the Japanese consumers surveyed believe cultural appropriation is a major CX issue. Along similar lines of avoiding stereotyping, showing appreciation for other cultures takes time, market research, and involvement from diverse perspectives.

Scaling localization efforts with LangOps

Creating the best localized CX is all about putting the customer first, regardless of where they live. Every omnichannel touchpoint must be customized to the preferences and needs of the target audience. Connecting with customers on a one-to-one level involves taking the time and effort to understand both their cultural and linguistic context.

While these efforts may seem difficult to scale, a practice called Language Operations (LangOps) can help streamline language translation and localization across countries, while taking into account the cultural nuances that make or break the CX. By pairing local editors with machine translation technology, brands can preserve cultural understanding and avoid damaging slip-ups – at lower cost and greater scale.

Global consumers are demanding to be seen and heard. Meeting them where they are with their native language and cultural context could be the secret to creating a global community of loyal fans.

Vasco Pedro
Vasco Pedro is a co-founder and chief executive officer of Unbabel, a company that removes language barriers by blending artificial intelligence with real time, human translations. A serial entrepreneur, Vasco has led Unbabel since 2013, taking it through Y Combinator and raising a total of $31 million in funding.


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