How to speak to an international audience

This piece originally appeared on the blog of an AI-powered translation service.

Communicating with people in a personal and targeted way is a basic skill every marketer 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.

Know your audience

Knowing your audience is fundamental to good marketing. Targeting and segmenting an audience is one way to understand your potential customers. It’s pretty much become the standard for modern-day marketing. Customers are bombarded with hundreds of adverts every day. Personalisation allows a business to cut through all the noise and gain a customer’s attention. When marketing on a global scale, it is key to keep up the personalisation. This can be tricky, however, when a marketer doesn’t know anything about a country or its people.

Employ local talent

One way to get around this issue is to employ feet on the ground. That is, hire a local marketing team to help improve a global campaign’s messaging for their specific market. People expect brands to speak to them in their own language, in their own way. The easiest way to achieve this is to literally employ individuals who do, indeed, speak the language.

Get to grips with the culture

Culture often trips businesses up. Understanding the many nuances of a local culture is tough for a marketer who has never worked or lived in the target country before. There’s a lot of unspoken rules that make up a culture, many of which might not be immediately obvious to the country’s inhabitants themselves. Culture differences between countries can be huge. Not understanding these differences can cause a campaign to fall flat (at the best) or even cause national outrage and offence (at its worse). There’s the potential to make the whole endeavour fraught with awkwardness for everyone involved. That’s why a country’s culture should never be underestimated.

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

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.

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 offense when inverted in Brazil. 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.

Translation can be tricky: Equally important is your translation. If a marketing slogan or other phrase 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 as the phrase “Are you lactating?”... which is probably not what they had in mind!

Mistakes will be costly

These kinds of mis-steps can end up costing a company a lot of wasted time and money. 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.

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.

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. McDonalds in the US uses the slogan “I’m lovin’ it!” whilst in Japan, it’s been tweaked to say “Everyone loves McDonalds.”

Cross-cultural training can help

One potential solution lies in cross-cultural training. This allows a marketer to begin to understand the potential differences between people across different countries. In doing so, a marketer 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.

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.

Marketing on an international scale does present some unique challenges, but it also brings along a lot of opportunities. Operating globally is attractive to many businesses, especially with today’s world market. Eventually, the prospect of communicating with an international audience will come for every marketer. It isn’t a daunting activity to carry out, when you follow a few crucial steps:

  • Firstly, identify your target market and their cultures, beliefs, language - and how this differs to your own.

  • Secondly, hire local expertise where required.

  • Third, double-check any translations and imagery will not be misunderstood or cause insult.

  • Adapt your marketing to any local nuances - in line with beliefs and culture.

  • Constantly test and refine your marketing strategy, based on results and consumer feedback.

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 well, international marketing can open borders for a business. If done incorrectly, it can shut the door on a whole new market.

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