Localising content: how, when and why

For marketers, audiences the world over have never been more within reach. Galvanised by the combined forces of globalisation, the internet and technology, businesses are seeing expansion into foreign markets as a primary driver of profit-making and growth. To provide culturally sensitive, relevant and faux pas-free messaging, localising content assets for diverse regional markets has become a priority skill.

Localisation means a lot more than making sure your ‘Got Milk?’ tagline doesn’t translate to ‘Are You Lactating?’ in Spanish (a now legendary gaffe from the California Milk Processor Board). It covers a tranche of other considerations too, on both the macro and micro scales – from culturally nuanced design, to avoiding bamboozlement with foreign slang, to pertinent case studies, to making sure you’re not transgressing any regional laws.

Feeling overwhelmed? You’re not alone. CMO Council research found more than two-thirds of marketers rate their efforts to translate and adapt across markets and channels below satisfactory. Often hit with a torrent of content from global head offices, localisation can feel like a Sisyphean task.  

It doesn’t have to be this way. One of the most important aspects of localisation is to not only localise your content, but your strategy too. The aim of content localisation, after all, is not to convert everything (which can be counterproductive – to your budget and to your messaging). It’s to give a geographically specific subset of customers content that resonates with them, in the language they speak – the literal and conversational kind.

Localising content is a complex business

As Contently noted in their 2016 global marketers guide, “there’s no standard approach to localising global content because there’s no such thing as a standard global brand”. Different companies will have different objectives, budgetary constraints, governance procedures and lines of accountability. They’ll also have unique chains of command, labour capacities and resources.

Inevitably, structures and work flows will vary. For some brands, localisation means the creation of content by teams of hired in-market native experts, with minimal oversight from centralised brand teams (outside of identifying ‘key themes’ to ensure universal brand alignment). For other brands, localisation will mostly entail re-engineering global assets to ensure they connect with regional audiences. Localisation can also be more proactive – for instance, when a brand organises a single social media video shoot, it may have two different casts of actors on hand, so that two different videos can be shot to represent two separate world demographics.

“There are global content themes in account management, but what financial advisers in Spain think is appropriate and relevant content for the fund sector can often be very different to what advisors in London are interested in,” Anne-Marie McConnon, Head of Marketing for BNY Mellon (an American worldwide banking and financial services corporation) told Contently.

“We empower our regional marketers to make decisions on distributing content, amplifying it, and maximising engagement, and that includes taking the initiative on localisation. That’s where a lot of our localisation happens – they’re not just translating content but re-engineering it to bring out the most relevant local angles.”

Creating a custom localisation strategy

So: we’ve established a ‘standard global brand’ just doesn’t exist. There’s also no such thing as a standard regional audience. Beyond being mindful of sociocultural considerations – customs, ideologies, religion and political histories – there are also more technical and bureaucratic aspects to take into account.

Protocols around who makes decisions and who buys are different from place to place. Laws and regulations surrounding content may also come into play, like those to do with comparative advertising (far more prohibitive in the Philippines and Switzerland, for instance, than the United States and Australia). Or (speaking hypothetically), while you may have cleared rights for the ‘Gettin’ Jiggy wit It’ track used in one of your campaign videos, when played across a national border, it might violate copyright law.

There are far too many variables to make a ‘one size fits all’ approach feasible. Before any content is converted, then, it’s essential that a custom localisation strategy is mapped out. It has to answer to the priority interests and demands of your target market and be realistic in its goals. And it must prove that every piece of content has a purpose in its new habitat and form.

Not everything needs to be localised

The challenge: central command is hitting you with a torrent of content. The pressure is on to squeeze it of value and maximise its reach. With turnaround tightening, inefficiencies begin to fester, counterproductivity dominates and c-suite conversations get increasingly awkward.

The reality: even if it were to be given the ‘localisation’ treatment, sometimes content would still be out of sync with a local audience’s priority interests and needs. When this happens, a brand is kicking an own goal. To its audience, it will be seen as out of touch, perhaps even a kind of lumbering imposter, trespassing on a community it doesn’t understand.

The solution: don’t repurpose everything. Filter it.

Rather than a landslide from on high, global content should ideally be a fertile ground to pick over and farm for whatever fruits are most suited to regional market’s palettes. Audience research here will be your rock and guiding star.

It takes pluck, but for the best results, regional marketers must always orientate themselves so they are answerable to their audience first. It is they who should dictate your content marketing – marketing chiefs take second place.

Localisation is more than translation

Bad translations get the most media attention; they are, almost invariably, hilarious. But localisation encompasses a whole lot more. Some of this comes down to the minuscule and grammatically pedantic – changing up those Americanised ‘z’s for Australianised ‘s’s for instance. Other times, it pays a mind to small variations in the the English-speaking world’s systems of language – which is why the US Hermione has ‘bangs’, whereas JK Rowling’s Australian witch has a ‘fringe’.

Here, with hypotheticals and examples, are a few more.

Design and images

Which colours, symbols, layouts and images will be best received by an audience will depend upon a region-specific set of cultural criteria. How particular you are about this aspect of localisation will largely depend on budgetary allowances, and time up your sleeve.

Number one priority is to make sure you don’t put your foot in it and offend or misrepresent the people you’re trying to charm. For instance, with white the colour of mourning in China and some other Asian nations, the impulse to maximise white space in design should generally be checked. Or, if you’re a homeware or livestock company, you wouldn’t want your ad to feature beef steaks sizzling on a stove top if your audience’s faith is predominantly Hindu.

There are, as many a Buzzfeed and Marketing Week article can testify, countless ways a brand can put its foot in it. Research your audience, test with locals before launch, and you’re taking the necessary steps to ensure your brand won’t rank in the ‘marketing fails’ listicle of the year.

Relevant case studies and examples

Give a case study or example that doesn’t resemble the business or economic environment your audience operates in, and you can count them as lost. This is because it renders the scenario you meant to illustrate so remote, it’s considered irrelevant. Your overall argument becomes easy to dismiss.

For instance, imagine you’re the regional marketer of an international corporation that sells renewable energy technology worldwide. One of your top writers stationed in the head office has penned an eloquent article discussing the need to shift away from non-renewable fuels. The article begins with listing how, according to recent data, if we don’t cut carbon emissions by 80% in the next decade, five east coast cities will be underwater by 2050. The problem is that the study is referencing the United States coastline – yet the article is now being distributed to audiences in Australia. An otherwise resonant message suddenly feels a million miles away.

Value propositions

Hostility is the last thing you want your marketing efforts to elicit. Yet when online accounting software company Xero made to sell a new product feature to an American market, this was the unfortunate result. To the audience of accountants, the automated bank reconciliation software was the dreaded ‘robot uprising’ made real – promising not so much as to help them, but to replace them by doing their own jobs more efficiently, accurately and at a lower cost.

A direct threat to their future incomes and job stability, Xero’s US audience quite naturally deafened themselves to the company’s messaging.

Localising content for authentic stories

And now, to break up the bloopers, an example of localisation done right.

When it launched in 2014, Sports England’s ‘This Girl Can’ campaign exploded. With studies revealing more than 41% of its British young women were avoiding exercising in public for fear of humiliation, its body positive message challenged the nation’s mindset and inspired an estimated 2.8 million more British women to get more active. Earlier this year, the Victorian Government announced that it would be localising the campaign for the Australian market.

“We’ll be starting from scratch,” VicHealth’s executive marketing manager Stefan Grun told Mumbrella. The emphasis is very much on building authentic stories and will feature local Victorian women (not actors or models) speaking unscripted lines. The project will be the biggest in VicHealth’s foreseeable future, with a three-year plan in place. As a key arm of its strategy, it will also be reaching out to local gyms and activity centres to embed the principles of the campaign throughout the broader state.

“Every sporting organisation in Victoria can work with us, providing they’re presenting classes that are appropriate for women and girls,” said Grun.

And yes, translation too

Finally, because we couldn’t resist (but also because we think you’ll appreciate them), here are five more examples of joyously blunderful translations.

  • When KFC entered the Chinese market in the 80s, its slogan ‘Finger-licking good’ was translated into ‘Eat your fingers off’.
  • Perdue Farms (another chicken-related business) emblazoned its billboards throughout Mexico with a mistranslation of ‘It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken’. Locals read it as: ‘It takes a hard man to make a chicken aroused’.
  • In Belgium, Ford’s ‘Every car has a high-quality body’ was promoted as ‘Every car has a high-quality corpse’.
  • When Mercedes-Benz hit the Chinese market, no one double-checked with locals an ill-chosen brand name ‘Bensi’. It means ‘rush to die’.
  • Just last year, Nike released a new Special Edition Air Force 1 shoe in China to coincide with the New Year. Two characters ‘fa’ and ‘fu’ were embroidered on the heels. Individually, they connote prosperity and luck. Together, they read: ‘Get fat’.

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About the Author

Job Title: Group Managing Editor

About James Chalmers: James is the Group Managing Editor at Mahlab. With a background in journalism, he has helped lift the content marketing game of universities, associations and myriad more organisations besides. If he had his own way, he would do all business from his bike – even after it catapaulted him over its handles last year and planted his face in the road. To the distress of his colleagues at conferences, he does not have a Twitter account.

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