What Happens When Brands Do Not Translate

The language of modern business

It would be naive to say that business is impossible without a translation service. English has been periodically crowned “the language of global business” after all, and many of the world’s most prominent business leaders understand that no matter where they conduct business, English is the only global language in collaborative, global office environments and during business dealings.

According to Bill Fisher in the Harvard Business Review, predictions of Mandarin becoming the dominant global language are incorrect, partially due to the fact that the world’s biggest advancements were, and still are, developed with the English-speaking market in mind. 

One example is the standard QWERTY keyboards used by millions every day are simply not designed for non-Roman alphabet speakers, he says. And it goes further. Fisher, a co-founder of online English language school EF Englishtown, says the top 10 programming languages are all based in English. Even Python and Ruby, among the top 10, and created by native Dutch and Japanese speakers, respectively, were founded with the English-speaking coder in mind. Innovation is, without a doubt, happening with English at the forefront, but that doesn’t mean your English-centric brand is prepared for the global market.

Meeting customers where they are

Even if you’re confident in your business offerings, and even if most of the world can read your English-language website, you may still be driving away customers because you aren’t meeting them where they are. 

Research shows that 70 percent of Internet users aren’t native English speakers, and according to a 2014 survey by the Common Sense Advisory, 75 percent of Internet users do not purchase from websites unless it is in a language they can speak. 

One way to effectively navigate this process is by acknowledging the unique needs of each market you expand into. The rules of etiquette, legal regulations, and consumer behaviors significantly vary by region. Thus, when you seek to adapt your brand in international marketing, you must conduct market research first and then listen to the feedback.

A 2015 survey by The Economist Intelligence Unit found that almost half of all respondents said that communication misunderstandings have stood in the way of a major cross-border transaction, incurring significant losses for their company.  That being said, you don’t want to completely alienate your original audiences. Access to international travel and the Internet creates another challenge: maintaining your local brand identities overseas. If your home-based audience encounters a vastly different version of your brand overseas, you may lose integrity in their eyes. 

Beyond words

Going beyond translation, your brand image, advertising, and even your company name or slogan could be adversely affecting your international reach. There are dozens of translation “fails” available to browse and laugh at online. Even industry leaders like KFC and Dolce & Gabbana have taken significant cultural missteps with their international business — the latter receiving major backlash from Chinese consumers, one of their largest markets.

Moreover,  small cultural mishaps, like the 2015 misunderstanding by Canada’s Yellow Pages, landed them in hot water for what appeared to some as advertising to a minority culture without bothering to understand the culture. And don’t forget about mobile advertising. One study found that localized mobile ads outperform 86 percent of English campaigns in both click-throughs and conversions. Don’t miss your global opportunity. Starting with a qualified, professional translation by a native speaker living in the target country will save you money, and prevent an embarrassing translation issue that could damage your international reputation.