Global brand localisation: the pain points and the solutions

Emily Bratt

Now more than ever before, companies have the opportunity to expand abroad thanks to digitalisation. But to have a chance of success, it’s vital that their products, services and content are adapted to fit the new market. It seems like a no-brainer, but in reality, if localisation was easy, all brands would be doing it flawlessly, which they’re not. 

It's difficult for brands to understand new audiences. And often, in order to capture them, they need to completely reinvent themselves in a new country. 

Learning from the mistakes of others

‘It’s especially a challenge for smaller companies who haven’t had any kind of cross-cultural training,’ explains James Lovell, TAMLO’s consultant, ‘but even large, global organisations who are cognisant of different cultural approaches to business still come up against barriers.’

Large multinational or small startup, no one is immune to bad localisation. Pepsi famously meant to encourage the Chinese market to ‘come alive’, but instead promised to bring everyone’s dead relatives back from the grave. And Honda was left red faced after discovering the name of the car they were marketing in Scandinavia had a vulgar meaning.

It’s TAMLO’s job to prevent mistakes and to lessen the localisation challenge for all businesses. We’re all about bridging the culture gap (for both clients and within our own organisation) and helping Western brands flourish in Japan — and vice versa. 

The fear of change

Most brands understand the importance of localisation. However, it’s a subconscious resistance to change that sometimes causes problems. Fear of change is part of the human condition. As Forbes points out, our brains hate it and ‘for business leaders, change is literally pain’. Of course, with change comes risk but in staying stuck, brands also risk becoming antiquated. 

‘We’re currently helping a large multinational organisation localise for the Japanese market’ says Nanako, TAMLO’s Chief Localisation Officer. ‘Their branding is “cool tech company” — they sit somewhere between B2B and B2C. They’re quirky and different and so far, they’ve done a great job reshaping their branding. We’re currently adapting their social media content and working with influencers. However, the challenge is that the Japanese team is not aligned to this kind of branding. They’re editing the posts to make them more corporate.’

‘Obviously, from their point of view, it makes sense: the tech world is more corporate in Japan,’ adds James, ‘but our argument is that it’s changing and we’re trying to stop them getting left behind. So we’ve been stuck in a tone of voice battle.’ 

Taking a leap of faith

It goes without saying that maintaining a positive relationship with clients is important for both sides, so it’s a balancing act. We are respectful of our clients’ views but we want them to trust that a new way will be the best in the long run. Sometimes this means pushing back. 

‘We have a great working relationship with both this client’s American offices and Japanese offices,’ explains Nanako, ‘and we’re in a position where we can be frank with the head of social media. We tell them that we see their point of view, but that we slightly disagree. In this case, we gently encouraged them to meet in the middle with their branding.’ 

Helping multinationals localise sometimes means being the middleman between departments, but that’s no bad thing. As a marketing agency specialising in localisation, we love that we’re able to help international teams come together, work towards a shared goal and instigate positive change. 

In the case of the aforementioned client, ‘it’s the US team’s job to make sure the brand works well with the Japanese audience’, explains Nanako, ‘it’s just that they had a different position on how to get there. But conversations between us, the American team and the Japanese team prompted updated brand training and new understandings.’

Translation vs localisation

Even if businesses are open to change, it can be their interpretation of localisation that trips them up. There is still the belief that localisation simply equals translation, but translation is just one facet of the overall process. A good localisation project takes a holistic approach and considers everything from the models or influencers used to the advertising techniques. Businesses who lump translation and localisation together tend to end up with content that’s been directly translated, AKA content that’s at best awkward, at worst incomprehensible or even offensive. 

40% of consumers won’t buy from a website where the content is not in their native language. And 41% won’t trust a site with poor grammar. ‘It’s baffling then’, says James ‘that lots of businesses choose translation over localisation services to adapt their content because the most important thing is building trust in your customer. People won’t trust a brand with this kind of content, yet, we see it all the time’.

TAMLO was commissioned to help a Japanese client with their English PR. ‘The product names had been translated directly into English from the original Japanese,’ explains Nanako. ‘We needed to spin it so that they somehow made sense in a natively-written press release but it was impossible! The client had thought it was okay — even, cool — to use this kind of English. They weren’t aware it wasn’t real English.’

The brand came to TAMLO for general PR help, but quickly discovered it was a bigger job than they’d anticipated. As Nanako explains: ‘They realised that post-pandemic, as overseas tourists are returning to Japan, they need to up their English game’.

The opposite is true, too, when American or British businesses localise to Japan. ‘We’ve seen big organisations translate entire websites to Japanese using a translation company. We bring in a Japanese member of the team and they’re like “WOW”!’ laughs Nanako.

Making assumptions based on your own culture generates mistakes, too. Take memes for example, they’re so ubiquitous that ‘memevertising’ is now a credible (and effective) form of digital marketing. At least, in Western culture it is. 

‘Memes are big in marketing in the US - but not at all in Japan. They just don’t work there’, explains James. ‘Even if it’s a meme that seems globally relevant, it won’t resonate with the Japanese audience. Recently, we had to help adjust a brand’s meme-dominated content marketing to better fit the Japanese audience.’

It’s very easy to assume that a marketing or social media trend is a global phenomenon just because it’s so prevalent on your own feeds. 

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Investing in a specialist agency, like TAMLO, with expertise in a particular culture avoids embarrassing (and damaging) mistakes for brands. 


Emily Bratt


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