During World War II, an American spy was caught by the Germans. Not because of his language skills. He spoke German like a German. But one little detail gave him away: the way he held his fork and knife.
Speaking a language is not enough. Not to be a spy, nor to be a good communications professional. In order to successfully blend into a culture, you must know that culture inside out. And that goes way beyond the language.
“When a pharmaceutical multinational launched a new product internationally, they thought they could avoid translation issues by using pictures to explain the benefits. The picture on the left showed an ill patient; in the middle one, the patient taking the medication and the picture on the right showed him looking well again. Among the markets for the launch was the United Arab Emirates. Arabic speakers read from right to left.”
This is just one of many examples from “The Little Book of Transcreation” that I found in my Cannes Lions goodie bag today. Never heard of Transcreation? It’s about translating words, creative concepts and ideas without losing the cultural impact. Very often what it comes down to is: different words, same ideas.
Although the book mainly gives examples from the advertising world, I can see similar challenges when it comes to language and linguistic associations that underpin the campaigns in the world of communications. And those have gotten even more complex with the rise of social media.
Much has been said about how global social media is and how it doesn’t know the borders. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of truth in there. Your customers are able to see what your brand is doing in different markets and what happens in one country, good or bad, can easily become a ‘thing’ in another. But your target audience still lives in one country, with their own language, their own sayings, their own slang, their own culture and their own cultural heritage. No matter how ‘cool’ and creative your campaign or program might be, without taking into consideration the market’s language, culture and the brand’s positioning, you can harm not only your campaign but an overall brand, too.
Don’t be mistaken, I am a big fan of global campaigns. They ensure greater brand consistency and messaging across markets and can be executed at reduced costs. But a global campaign will never be successful globally, if it’s not relevant locally. How can you ensure your audiences get culturally relevant messages wherever they are in the world? Involve the locals. Have all communications signed off by a local product manager or marketing manager. Have a local community manager who communicates and engages with the local audiences. Think globally, act locally – I know this slogan has been overused, but it doesn’t mean that it isn’t true.