Choosing The Wording For Your International Marketing Campaigns

Language on International MarketingWhen I was growing up I lived in a small town in West Devon, in the South West of the United Kingdom. We were near to a ferry port that had services running to Bretagne in France, so that was the location of the majority of our family holidays.

The vast majority of the people in my town were English and when I went to University, there were a number of people from Asia, but again most of the people I met were English. My French holidays when growing up were often to small towns, so I encountered only French people there.

It wasn’t until I had been working for two years after University that I decided to visit some new places. I decided to spend some time around Europe, visiting various cities and towns, staying in hostels and generally having fun.

One day I was in Zurich, Switzerland, staying in a friendly and hostel. It was full of people from all over the world so I started chatting in the bar to a group of people. It turned out that only a couple knew anyone else there before that evening. There were two people from San Diego called Julio and Robby, Luis from Peru, David from New York and Ari from Australia. We decided that we would all go to the lake the next day as it was due to be sunny.

Despite growing up watching Home and Away as well as Neighbours, I’d never really met anyone from Australia, so although I knew a lot of the local lingo from TV, there were lots of words that I had never heard. When I walked into the bar of the hostel the following morning, Ari was the first there. We both had shorts and t-shirts on, he was wearing flip flops and I was wearing trainers.

“You’re not bringing any thongs?” He asked.

I paused, confused. It seemed a little bit personal.

It turned out that in Australia, when people talk about thongs, they aren’t talking about the skimpy underwear often worn by women on the beach, in-fact thongs in Australia are Flip Flops – true beach footwear.

This is one example of a word that has a different meaning in different places. There are also words that are simply more commonly used in different cultures and countries, for example Americans go on vacations, but British people go on holiday.

This is key for international digital marketing. Sure, if an American asks a British person where he is going for his vacation, the British man will understand what he means, but he’ll know that the American isn’t from the same place as him. Something like thongs might cause a few eyebrows to raise in the United Kingdom if it was yelled out on an advert for footwear, so it’s worth keeping the local dialect in mind.

It’s not just about choosing which language to speak, when translating your campaigns for international reach, it’s important to learn the cultural meanings and connotations of the words you use in your marketing.

An unfortunate mess

Translating slang words and phrases is generally more risky than translating more traditional words and phrases. Modern words that make the papers when they land in the Oxford Dictionary often don’t have exactly the same meaning when translated, as do phrases that come from popular culture.

One of the world’s most recognisable beers, Coors found out the hard way that it’s important to check the true meaning of everything in your adverts, ideally using someone who knows the local language and culture inside and out.

The American beer manufacturer often highlights its ‘cool’ side, both the optimum temperature of its beer, and the cultural position of the brand. It is seen as a beer for cool people, who are really up to date on the best fashion, music and way of life, but with a retro twist.

Its ‘Turn it loose’ campaign really captured the feeling of coolness, of trendiness and of the style that appeals to Coors drinkers. In most countries, that is.

When the company brought the ‘Turn it loose’ campaign to Spain it failed to research into the connotation of the phrase. The campaign did make its mark on consumers there, but perhaps more for the wrong reason.

When translated into Spanish, Turn it loose used an expression which is often interpreted as “Suffer from diarrhoea.” It may not be particularly offensive, but is clearly a huge blooper on behalf of the beer manufacturer.

The lesson here is to make sure you know the interpretation of the words and phrases you use in your marketing. This wasn’t a translation error, but more a human error that could have been prevented with knowledge of the local culture in Spain.

Ever-Changing Languages

When marketing to multiple countries the ideal is making it seem like you know what you’re talking about. Sure, you may use voice-over actors with foreign accents, but they wouldn’t talk in a way that the local audience wouldn’t understand. You don’t need to hide the fact that you aren’t from there, but know your audience and know what they understand and appreciate.

Language can be fluid, with new words and phrases popping into popular culture all the time. Some words can appear from other cultures via the media or trends that pass overseas and others can come back from the past. Sometimes celebrities bring in new words that spread for a short time then die out.

Tools like Google Trends can show you whether a search term is being used more on Google now or in the past. It can show whether a word or phrase is becoming more popular or less popular and it can also show you if it was never used at all. It can also show you when there are spikes in search trends. So, if something is in the news, it is likely to be talked about more at that point than at other times.

‘Football boots’ is a search term that, although may be used in a number of countries, is far more British than the search term ‘Soccer cleats’. As you no doubt know already, Football in the UK is Soccer in the United States. Soccer is far less used in the UK as it is in the United States. A search on Google Trends for Football Boots, compared to Soccer Cleats, when targeted solely at the United Kingdom, shows a huge difference, with many more people searching for Football Boots than Soccer Cleats. Switch it to the United States and Soccer Cleats is the dominant search term, although Football Boots are still searched for, just nowhere near as much.

Therefore, if targeting football players in the United States, the best term to use is Soccer Cleats, but when targeting footballers in the UK, Football Boots is likely to drive more traffic, and also be better understood and relevant.

Getting the language right isn’t just about not making mistakes; it’s about getting the best out of your campaigns. Google trends can also help you to get the language to suit the timing of your campaigns too.

I’m a fan of Plymouth Argyle football club. I’m sure many of you won’t know much, or anything about the club, but it’s a professional football club in the United Kingdom. When searching through the Trends data for Plymouth Argyle, targeted at the United Kingdom, I can see that more people talked about the club when they were on TV or playing in important fixtures.

This sort of data can show you when it is worth using certain words. For example, Happy Holidays in the United States is a common phrase for Christmas time, but is less common at that time of year in the United Kingdom.

Obviously search data may not be 100% perfect for choosing the words you use, as we speak slightly differently when searching compared to when we are in conversation, but it is worth keeping an eye on search trends for changes.

It’s better to play it safe when translating your digital marketing campaigns for different nationalities. If possible, get the help of someone native to that country. Someone who is fluent, but not native will do if you have no other choice, but it is better to bring in someone who knows colloquial language, trends and the cultural meanings of words.

About the Author

Patrick is a digital marketing consultant with around 10 years' experience, covering SEO, PPC, social media, email and user experience.

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