Thanks to the status of the English language as the world’s lingua franca, the needs of native British English speakers can sometimes be neglected in the UK market entry process. If you’re a US-based company launching a new app, for example, translating your user interface into French, German and Spanish for your European launch is a no-brainer. But what about English?

In this typical expansion model, English is often the overlooked language. As Brits can understand – or think they understand – American English with ease, what’s the incentive to localise your product for the UK market? Many new entrants make the mistake of thinking that there’s little value in UK localisation.

Traditionally, many software companies didn’t invest in localising their product for the UK market. British users were used to seeing Microsoft Word offering options to change the font color or center text. In recent years, however, there’s been a change in expectations amongst UK consumers and they now expect products and services to be available in their variety of English.

Here we’ll dispel some of the myths about English adaptation and explain why it’s a worthwhile – or even vital – investment.

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1. US English can be a barrier to entering the UK market

The debate about who English ‘belongs to’ is as old as the hills. Many Brits have a sense of ownership of the English language – the attitude that American spellings, grammar conventions and vocabulary are ‘incorrect’ is extremely prevalent. Although this viewpoint doesn’t stand up to much linguistic scrutiny, depending on your product it could create a barrier to entry to the UK market.

Take the example of Grammarly, the writing tool. As the product originates in the US, its initial offering didn’t cater for different dialects of English. Grammarly was therefore offering its users in the UK suggestions that didn’t make sense for them – insisting on inserting a comma before and, for example, or marking UK spellings like realise and endeavour as incorrect. It now offers users the option to choose their dialect of English, making their offering much more relevant for a UK audience.

Take the time to research the UK market and understand what the expectations of your new customer base are.

Differences in dialect aren’t just about grammar and spelling though – they reflect cultural and consumer expectations. When it comes to marketing food products, for example, US consumers will be used to seeing terms like GMO-freetrans fat and low cholesterol on their products. Referring to GMO may actually create a negative perception amongst UK consumers who generally don’t expect food to be genetically modified – their first thought will be ‘why are they having to specify GMO-free?’. UK consumers are unfamiliar with the term trans fat (their addition to food is restricted by law) and products generally don’t focus on cholesterol content in the same way as they do in the US.

With this in mind, you might want to emphasise different features of your product. UK consumers value foodstuffs free of artificial colours and flavourings, for example. Labels like free rangeorganic and Fair Trade are also highly prized, although these come with certification requirements.

Take the time to research the UK market and understand what the expectations of your new customer base are. This will inform how you adapt your marketing copy for local consumers. Getting in-market expertise is vital here – don’t try and remotely manage this from the US.

2. UK English brings you closer to your customers

The adage goes that the US and UK are two countries ‘separated by a common language’. This shared linguistic heritage can gloss over some of the differences. There’s a stark contrast in the business cultures of the two countries, for example. Americans’ enthusiasm and initial warmth can be mistaken for interest in doing business, whereas Brits may seem cold and standoffish to Americans in the same situation.

Brits also value small talk as an icebreaker in a first interaction with a new business contact and may be offended if this is dropped in favour of a ‘let’s get down to business’ approach. This aspect of the business culture tends to slow down deal-making, which may be frustrating to Americans used to closing faster.

The principle is the same as for any other language: if you’re selling to someone, sell in their native language.

The differing ways in which politeness is expressed in the two countries can also be problematic. Brits tend to pepper requests liberally with please, for example when ordering in a café: Can I have a black coffee, please? This use of please is a standard way of ‘softening’ the request in the UK and to omit it would be considered rude. In the US, however, this use of please can often seem passive aggressive, so it’s more common to express politeness with the use of a conditional verb like would or could and drop the please altogether.

When it comes to English adaptation, the principle is the same as for any other language you localise into: if you’re selling to someone, sell in their native language. By sticking to US English, you pass up the opportunity to build an intimate relationship with your customer base – it will be hard for them to overcome the perception of your business as ‘foreign’. Many US companies successfully enter the UK market, but there have also been plenty of high-profile failures stemming from a lack of consideration for cultural differences: Best Buy and Chick-fil-A to name but two examples.

One aspect mentioned in the failure of Best Buy was their neglect to use a local voiceover artist for their TV advertisements. As a result, UK viewers deemed the brand ‘too American’ and weren’t able to connect with it.

Of course, failing to adapt to the UK market is about more than just language: you have to look at your marketing efforts as a whole and think about how to make your offering relevant. Language is a great place to start though. Being open-minded about adapting your marketing copy can make it easier to adjust other aspects of your brand proposition to ensure a successful UK expansion.

3. Adaptation prevents misunderstanding (and embarrassment)

Most of the time, English speakers from both sides of the Atlantic can understand each other perfectly well – or at the very least get by. When speaking, a lot depends on the dialects and accents of the speakers and how far apart they are on the spectrum of English varieties.

The written standards in the US and UK appear much closer. In writing, we don’t have to worry about differing pronunciations, for example. There’s also more of a shared standard grammar which minimises the differences between dialects. However, this doesn’t mean that there’s not the potential for major misunderstandings.

Investing in British English localisation should be a central part of your UK marketing strategy.

Let’s take a look at a few examples. In the UK, if someone’s full of beans, they’re lively and full of energy, whereas in the US this expression normally means that someone is incorrect (full of s**t).

In the US, chat up is increasingly used as a synonym of talk up ‘to speak positively about, promote’. The meaning is completely different in the UK, where chat up means ‘to flirt’.

Then there’s spunky – a classic example which is resoundingly a compliment in the US. I’ll allow readers to consult definitions 2 and 3 of the word on Wiktionary to find out why it should be avoided in the UK!

An excellent guiding principle when entering a new geographical market – no matter how similar it may appear on the surface to your home market – is not to underestimate the need for a tailored approach that respects local consumers’ needs and preferences.

Do plenty of market research and take advantage of the expertise of local translation and marketing agencies. Investing in British English localisation should be a central part of your UK marketing strategy, as tempting as it is to overlook. Why risk failure and damage to your brand?

English adaptation, Market research, Marketing translation