In today’s inter-connected world, international marketing and targeted localisation are integral parts of a successful growth strategy. Read on to find out why thinking about language will help connect your products and services with the customers you wish to reach. 

Locally appropriate yet globally recognisable 

Product localisation is an essential part of an effective sales and marketing strategy. You might have heard of “clustering” – a well-known concept in store management which involves adjusting local offers to better fit the profile of consumers in a specific area. 

When it comes to going global, clustering can also involve language clusters; firstly because not everyone in the same country necessarily speaks the same language, and even if they do, they often speak it very differently. Sales and marketing professionals tend to consider this keenly when writing copy for their own language markets, but when content is localised, the text is often translated in a generic fashion, which may be wholly inappropriate for the target audience. 

Consider it as an inverted pyramid, where the starting point is the mass market – a shared language spoken in a country, for example – which is then narrowed down by segment, niche and lastly the individual consumer. At each step, the language is progressively adapted and targeted to the narrower cross-section of consumers. 

This model has been borne out by real-life business experience. American chain superstore Walmart has used localisation across its thousands of sites to provide consumers with locally targeted offers in different regions – even from one town to the next. As a Harvard Business Review article from 2006 about this strategy summarised: 

Too much localization can corrupt the brand and lead to ballooning costs. Too much standardization can bring stagnation, dooming a company to dwindling market share and shrinking profit.” 

One example of localisation leading to increased sales was seen during the re-labelling of a pesticide called “Ant and Roach Killer”. This name sold well in the southern states of the USA, but not in the north. After some market research, the manufacturer decided to remove the word “roach” from the label, which helped increase sales dramatically.  

This demonstrates a company moving down to the sharp end of the inverted pyramid to appeal to a large target audience that had been put off by the word “roach”. It shows how localisation within a country and in the same language can lead to increased sales; and the process is very similar when you seek to localise product information and offerings in other languages and markets. 

Language clustering 

At the time the Harvard article was written, globalisation was really taking off. Many feared this would lead to greater homogenisation, with a few global players selling the same indistinguishable products in all countries and communities. The intervening 16 years have proven the article right in solidifying the exact opposite:  

“… a look at the emerging localization strategies of the leading companies in consumer markets—companies that once shunned customization but now embrace it—reveals how mistaken this assumption is. We are advancing to a world where the strategies of the most successful businesses will be as diverse as the communities they serve.” 

One global brand that has built a localised product marketing campaign – right down to the level of local dialect – is Swedish furniture giant IKEA. In Malaysia, they used witty wordplay to create slogans that reflected local usage of the suffix “kia” in the Hokkien dialect, as seen in a billboard featuring a picture of a chicken and the words ‘We are not Kay Kia. We are IKEA.’ (Kay Kia is the Hokkien word for chick). Another example features a tall man and the Billy bookcase with the line ‘We are not Lo Kha Kia (a tall man). We are IKEA’.  

The IKEA products in question may be largely similar around the world, but perhaps precisely for that reason, using local dialect in the adverts showed that IKEA is aware of the local community they serve. 

Layering to target 

As demonstrated in the inverted pyramid model, localising into a particular language is only the first step in narrowing the localisation pyramid towards the most receptive consumer. The next steps involve employing other tactics to craft the right message in the right way, not least by securing a thorough understanding of who makes up the market segment. 

If you’re producing or selling stairlifts, for example, there is little point in localising the text in your marketing materials and product information to a style that is attractive to people in their twenties. Given that stairlifts are relatively costly, you’re likely to target social groups in high income markets that are more likely to live in suburban houses with more than one floor (urban flats are unlikely to need a stairlift). 

The niche thus consists of elderly, well-off, suburban people – they need a very specific linguistic approach, and your ability to adapt and adjust it is crucial to successfully selling to this demographic, both in terms of content and style. This must also be reproduced when the material is localised from one language to another. 

Marketing that speaks to your prospect 

The sharp end of the pyramid is the individual customer – the one who is actually completing a purchase – whether a private consumer or a purchaser for a retailer. 

At this stage, it’s all about finding the right words to trigger the customer’s interest and willingness to purchase. 

Matt Lerner, co-founder and CEO at Startup Core Strengths, explains that

“… when you find the exact right words to explain your product or service to prospective customers, words that resonate with goals and struggles that are already in their brains […] a lightbulb in their heads switches on that says, ‘That is EXACTLY what I’m looking for’ —  they feel like you’ve read their minds.” 

Finding the right words means understanding that a potential customer’s purchase decision sits within a wider context in their life. The words you use must therefore reflect their situation rather than just your product. But how can you guess what’s in your prospect’s head? 

Unless Apple are announcing the release of their new iPhone, it’s pretty unlikely that people are already thinking of a specific product. Instead, their minds are filled with daily struggles, fears, anxieties, hopes, dreams, and much more besides. So, if you want to get their attention, you’ll need your marketing messages to resonate with what’s on their minds. 

That brings us to the million-dollar question – do potential customers overseas, speaking different languages, have the same struggles, doubts and goals as those in your domestic market? A recently released book titled Are you thinking clearly? explains how language can influence the way we think about space and time, and even where we focus our attention. 

The languages your customers speak can be the key to creating messages that resonate with their present or future and inform how you organise the information, or whether you decide to focus on certain things such as gender, movement or colour. 

As the aforementioned IKEA example shows, sometimes it’s simply not enough to translate your product information and marketing materials. There are countless examples of slogans, messages and instructions gone wrong when simply translated rather than adapting or transcreating to fit the target audience. Hitting the nail – to fit language, style, tone and culture – on the proverbial head is crucial to reaching all the way to the individual purchaser themselves. 

Mr Lerner continued, “I’ve seen companies with language/market fit normally get conversion rates from 8%–40%, which results in much stronger unit economics. Why the sudden jump? Visitors to your site or app store listing bring different levels of intent. It’s easy to convert high-intent users. But if you’re an unfamiliar startup, most of your visitors will have low intent, more curious than desperate. As you tighten up your language, you’ll be able to cut through to that massive pool of low-intent traffic.” 

Lerner’s lesson is a crucial one as you consider who you’re competing with in the various target marketplaces and the level of intent of your potential customers. 

The question is, if you offer a similar product or service as another provider, but they have localised their product information and user experience, perhaps even the overall profile of their products and services, who do you think will have the best chance of hitting the sweet spot with the consumer? 

Finding the market is finding the language 

Language is not necessarily bound to a particular region or nation. Often language traverses political and physical borders, and even within a country there may be significant differences in how different sub-groups communicate; millennials speak and communicate very differently than Generation X or Boomers, and urbanites have very different trigger words than those living in the suburbs. 

Take Spanish, a language which is used differently in Spain and across the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America. Then consider Latin America itself; Chile’s Spanish is certainly different from Argentina’s, or the dialect spoken in Bolivia, and within each of these countries, a young, urban audience will differ from an older, affluent or rural one. 

A well-considered product localisation strategy will connect language usage to the main variables used in sales and marketing to define a potential target market or audience, such as age, gender, income level, occupation, cultural background or family status. 

Given that these variables can span across large geographical areas and cut through languages and cultures, it becomes increasingly important to craft tailored messages that resonate within each group, if you want to reach all the way to the individual customer and influence their purchasing behaviour with your words. 

As a result, product localisation should be a key component in your sales and marketing strategy from the very start. Any successful marketing strategy has messaging at its core, and this doesn’t change just because the language changes. 

As you narrow down the inverted pyramid, either by geography or language group or demographics or gender, localisation is key to this necessary clustering as you aim to fine-tune your message and influence each individual decision maker. 

Exports, Going global, Market research