Localization: The Secret Weapon to International Brands’ Success Revealed

By: Cheryl

When brands or companies want to expand their businesses to a wider audience or unknown international market, the first thing they should do is to localize their brands. This applies to everything: brand names, slogans, advertisements, product/service names, and sometimes, even creating products targeted to customers in the specific region to which they’re expanding.

Localization is what makes a business abroad look local. It brings customers the familiarity of brands that are “from home,” adds an emotional filter to the products and services, encourages consumption by showing understanding to the local people and culture, and eventually builds customers’ loyalty and attachment to the brand.

Similar to translation, localization involves translating a business’ mother tongue into a different language. But it goes beyond that. While translation focuses on the exchange of information from one language to another, localization pays more attention to local cultures. For example, a North American brand might require localization when it expands to the British market (when you sell “pants,” are you selling trousers or underwear?), while translation isn’t needed since both the regions speak English. Developing a brand using one of the world’s most spoken languages does not spare your business from facing cultural differences abroad.

Localization also goes beyond simply addressing the definition of each product and service properly. A successfully adapted brand should look like it was developed within the target culture. This process might include translating the language, using correct fonts and colours that are considered appropriate for the scenario in the target culture, converting currency, using local formats and punctuation, following local writing guidelines, changing content to avoid misunderstanding, and paying attention to technical details like supporting double byte digital characters.

Even the translation part of localization is always more than word-for-word. If there is a space limit, the content might be changed since words that carry the same meaning in different languages have different physical lengths. If the content involves a slogan, the localized version should sound just as punchy and eye-catching in the target language as the original one. When it comes to brand and product names, the localized names should carry subtexts that are as professional/appetizing/athletic/pleasing as the industry requires.

With so many aspects at stake, can an international business possibly get away without professional localization? The answer is maybe. But there are also risks that things could go seriously wrong. To name a few, here are some famous examples where localization failed on different aspects:

1. Late in the last century, the Swedish vacuum brand Electrolux was introduced to the English-speaking market with their slogan “Nothing sucks like Electrolux.” People in the U.S. soon found the ad amusing due to the word “suck” in English being a homonym. What’s worth noticing, however, was that the same campaign put into the British market faced no issue from the local people, because in the 1970s, the negative definition of “suck” was purely American and had yet to travel across the Atlantic Ocean. This is a great example of why localization can be different for target countries that speak the same mother tongue.

2. Visual elements matter too. In the 1970s, Pampers, known for its advertisement of depicting a stork carrying a bag of diapers, failed to impress consumers in Japan. It’s not that their campaign was offensive or misleading – it’s that it simply didn’t make sense. The culture of associating storks with newborns was exclusively native to the Western world, and the ad that’s considered fun and creative in the U.S. didn’t catch much attention to the Japanese eyes.

3. When lifestyles and ideologies become a factor, localization becomes even more complicated. The toothpaste manufacturer Pepsodent once made the mistake of promoting tooth-whitening products to the Southeast Asian market without knowing that the region has a tradition of seeing blackened teeth as a sign of adulthood or civilization (they believe that hiding “fangs” is what differentiates humans from animals). It’s hard to imagine Pepsodent’s products will succeed in these areas without first promoting having white teeth as the one and only healthy lifestyle.

Adapting to cultures overseas is complicated but important. Does the colour white imply holiness or death in your target market? Do the native speakers call the make-up application procedure “applying,” “painting” or “drawing?” In today’s world where diversity is embraced and celebrated, knowing and respecting your customers’ cultures is the first step in bringing a business to international success; and localization, as discussed above, is the secret weapon that can be revealed behind the scenes.