How to speak to an international audience

6 min read

Communicating with people in a personal and targeted way is a basic skill every business needs to develop. But this can be difficult when operating on a global scale.

Many businesses aim to expand worldwide, however, this can pose some unique challenges for a marketing department. Marketing campaigns which work domestically won’t necessarily translate when rolled out in different countries.

Understanding how to adapt to different cultures, beliefs, and languages is an increasingly valuable skill for marketers.

1. Know your audience

Customers are bombarded with hundreds of adverts every day. Knowing who you are reaching out to and then targeting and segmenting them is now just standard practice. Personalisation allows a business to cut through all the noise and gain a customer’s attention, particularly on a global scale where local nuance is key.

2. Get to grips with the culture

If you’ve never lived in or even visited a target country, it can be tough to understand local nuances. There are lots of unspoken rules that make up any culture, some of which might not be immediately obvious to the country’s inhabitants themselves.

Different elements of a culture will also influence each other, like how religious beliefs can make a culture more family-centric. Therefore, businesses should also consider the context of a culture as a whole.

Not understanding these differences can cause a campaign to fall flat (at its best) or even cause national outrage and offence (at its worse).

3. Avoiding offense in different countries

Sex doesn’t always sell: In the USA and several European countries, many items are marketing with sexual imagery and undertones. This wouldn’t suit a more conservative and family-orientated market, like in Malaysia, for example.

Be careful with body language: Likewise, some gestures and facial expressions can cause offense in some countries. The ‘okay’ sign in the US can imply something is worthless in France and can cause some offence in countries like Brazil. So if you are using any kind of imagery or videos of people in your advertising, it’s best to double-check that any mannerisms aren’t going to be misunderstood or cause insult.

You may want to double-check your logo: In 1997, when Nike released the logo for its Air Bakin’ range, it caused widespread offense across the Muslim community because of its resemblance to the way Allah’s name is written in Arabic. As a result, Nike was forced to withdraw over 38,000 pairs of trainers.

4. Help with spotting opportunities

Knowing the dynamics behind a country’s culture can help a business spot opportunities or potential gaps in the market. For instance, a luxury retailer might want to ramp up their marketing in the Middle East during the Muslim holiday of Id.

Plus, there’s the perceived value placed on certain items in some cultures. In China, for instance, the Hermes brand is extremely sought-after as a sign of wealth and status. However, the once popular Louis Vuitton has lost its shine in the Chinese market, thanks to a recent association with ambitious office assistants.

5. Adapting your marketing in response

Understanding the differences across countries is half of the battle. Altering your marketing strategy to better target different markets is the other half.

Many marketing slogans in the US focus on using very individual-centric language, which isn’t suitable for some other cultures. McDonald’s in the US uses the slogan “I’m lovin’ it!” whilst in Japan, it’s been tweaked to say “Everyone loves McDonald’s.”

6. Cross-cultural training can help

One potential solution lies in cross-cultural training. This allows your team to begin to understand the potential differences between people across different countries. In doing so, your team can then find ways to bridge the gaps in understanding between cultures, beliefs, and language.

Even when using a local marketing team, some cross-cultural training should be considered for the HQ marketing team. Not only will this allow both teams to work more effectively together, but it will also help the HQ team plan their global and local marketing strategy.

7. Translate your content accurately

Equally important is translating your website content and speaking to your customers in their own language.

If a marketing slogan or any other sentence is translated too literally, it can end up as a humorous fail. When the American Dairy Association wanted to better target Hispanic communities, it translated the phrase “Got Milk?” into Spanish. It ended up with the phrase “Are you lactating?”… which is probably not what they had in mind!

The thing is, translation can be tricky but it’s also crucial if you’re expanding your business to a new country.

Why? Because unlike what most people think, in 2017 only 25.3% of all internet users spoke English. If you’re only communicating in English, then you’re probably losing customers.

Previously, opening and maintaining new markets has been an expensive and unwieldy proposition, involving the duplication of process and teams on a per-language basis.

And while pure machine translation may be useful for getting a gist of foreign news articles or understanding a menu while traveling, this technology alone cannot be trusted for reliable customer communications.

Unbabel’s “Translation as a Service” combines state-of-the-art Neural Machine Translation, Quality Estimation, customer-specific glossaries and style guides to effectively remove language barriers between companies like Pinterest, Skyscanner, Under Armour and Rovio, and their customers.

8. Test, test, and test again

To refine and better target your marketing strategy to local markets, you’ll need to keep on testing what does and doesn’t work. But make sure you also employ the measures we’ve already discussed to avoid any huge cultural missteps.

Set up a system for measuring results regularly, and use those results to constantly inform local marketing campaigns. To save resources, take things slow initially and only test a few campaigns. You should also make sure that your organisation can respond to any results quickly and that your marketing strategy is flexible enough to be adapted if needed.

Communicating effectively with an international audience is one of those activities that, with a bit of initial legwork, can reap a lot of rewards for both marketer and their organisation. When done incorrectly, you can shut the door on a whole new market.

Done right and done well, international marketing can open doors, and borders, for business.

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