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Translation Versus Localization: Keys to International eCommerce Success

Mar 14, 2017

The world may be your oyster—if you’re an international business sourcing pearls. If you’re selling pearls, however, the world is much more than your oyster. The world is your potential customer base.

Retail eCommerce sales will reach almost $2 trillion in 2016, accounting for 8.7% of total retail spending worldwide. By 2020, that number is predicted to increase to over $4 trillion, constituting nearly 15% of total yearly retail spending.

A significant percentage of this purchasing power comes from cross-border sales. Currently the United States is the leading destination for online shoppers buying across borders, followed by China, the UK and Germany. By 2020, close to 1 billion consumers – almost half of all online shoppers – will purchase products online from a business based outside their home country.

The role language plays in cross-border eCommerce

If you’re an American shopper purchasing textbooks from the UK, language won’t present a meaningful barrier. However, if you’re a Chinese shopper procuring clothing from an American retailer, a recent Forrester report shows that language plays a much bigger role in purchasing decisions because 95% of Chinese online consumers prefer to shop on websites in their own language. In Europe, that number is 42%.

If your business plans to expand internationally, the ability to present your product or service to your target market in their native language must be a critical part of your expansion strategy. Native language content, however, must be treated with care. Anecdotes of poor translations – faulty to a laughable extent – are unfortunately all too prevalent in international business.

What successful native language content must accomplish

Successful native language content will fall in line with the expectations of the target market in two areas: function and culture. The functional content is easier to spot and deploy properly because it is logical rather than tradition-based. Examples include:

  • Date and time format (12/26/16 versus 26/12/16)
  • Telephone number format ((020) 123-4567 versus +4420 1234 567)
  • Weights and measurements (pounds vs. kilograms, cubic centimeters versus fluid ounces)
  • Currency (USD versus EUR)

The cultural aspect, however, is considerably more delicate. Successful native language content must simultaneously meet cultural expectations while avoiding offense in relation to:

  • Images and icons
  • Humor
  • Etiquette
  • Values and beliefs
  • Traditions

For a non-native speaker, mistakes are sometimes painfully easy to make. How would a French company know that to a Chinese person, dressing a bride in white is a no-no because wearing white is associated with funerals? Unfortunately, it’s just as easy to make culturally-insensitive linguistic errors. Therefore, when you are marketing a product or service overseas, translation alone isn’t enough. The methodology required is localization.

Translations that didn’t fly (literally)

Airlines deliver some superb examples of the hazards of translation without localization. In 1987, for example, Braniff Airlines touted its planes’ all-leather seats with the slogan “Fly in Leather.” Its print, television and radio ads gave the image of a high-class airline until it translated “in leather” to “en cuero” in a Spanish-language radio ad for the Florida market. While “en cuero” does technically mean “in leather,” in Spanish slang, it means “naked”. “Flying naked” is not quite the slogan that Braniff had in mind.

Another US airline made a similar error. The airline had been promoting its posh “rendezvous lounges” on its 747s. The campaign was successful until the promotion reached Brazil where, unfortunately, the Portuguese connotation of “rendez-vous” means a room rented out for prostitution. The Brazilians, understandably, were reluctant to board a plane boasting such amenities.

Successful localization at its best

Coca-Cola does a great job of localizing their message. When Australia’s Share-a-Coke campaign went global, Coca-Cola understandably had to change the 150 most popular names in Australia to the 150 most popular names in Denmark, Norway and the United Kingdom. Coke did their homework and in doing so, they recognized that localization sometimes goes beyond just the name changes. In China, for example, Coke bottles sported common nicknames like Classmate and Close Friend instead of first names due to the sheer volume of first name options. Instead, they selected nicknames and compliments popular on Chinese social media. This move proved a hit with Chinese youth and led to a significant spike in Coca-Cola sales in the Chinese market.

Think globally, act locally

The market in the global village is open for business, and it will only keep growing. If you stake your spot now, you’ll be poised to expand your business well beyond any geographic barriers. Investing in localization can help you reach global consumers, expand your market share overseas and diversify by becoming less dependent on the US domestic market alone.

If you want to learn more about our professional localization services, contact us here.

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