01 Mar 2016

Selective Localization: Knowing When and What to Localize

Localization differs from translation in that localization takes into account the idiosyncrasies of the culture within each market – adapting the product, service and message to suit local audiences.

As more brands understand the importance of localization, “think global; act local” has become the byword of the multinational organisation. But brands should carefully consider the extent to which they localize their offering for the various target markets and audiences around the world if they are to achieve global success.

We’ll explore the arguments against taking a fully localized approach, and examine some brands that have opted to take a centralized or selective approach that either ignores the differences between the markets in which they operate or chooses to localize only certain elements for consumers in these markets.

Why localize?

Localization aims to make a product appear to have been created specifically for its target market, rather than imposed from outside. This maximizes its relevance for consumers in that market.

Typically, a localization project will encompass adapting not only the language but also other aspects of the brand and marketing to suit the local market.

This will include adapting the design and graphical elements, redesigning the website, and modifying other content to suit local tastes. On a practical level it will include accommodating local clothing sizes, standard date formats and units of measurement, currency and other elements such as adapting seasonal campaigns to suit local holidays.

Brands that have adopted localization include Starbucks, which adapts the design of its coffee shops to suit the local social habits. In Mexico the chain lays out its stores more like bars, enabling group socializing rather than catering for individuals drinking coffee at small tables whilst working on a laptop as is the dominant visitor model in its home market. It’s the same in China, where the furniture can be easily rearranged to suit the large groups of coffee drinkers that often visit stores together.

There are also more extreme examples of localizing a brand for other markets. In Japan, Kit Kat is one of the biggest confectionery brands. It’s achieved this status by offering a huge array of unusual flavours that appeal to the local interest in novelty.

Kit Kat chocolate bars are available in limited edition flavors such as soy sauce and sweet potato. It’s a completely different approach to the one Kit Kat takes in its home market, but it’s worked extremely well for the Japanese market which favors novelty over predictability.

How poor localization can damage a global brand

A brand can be damaged if its localization efforts clash with home market expectations. Starbucks recently caused a storm when the brand was found to have excluded women from one of its Saudi Arabian stores. To comply with local laws segregating the sexes, Starbucks banned women from the store until the customary ‘gender wall’ separating unrelated men and women inside the space could be erected. This caused a big social media storm in the more liberal markets in which the brand operated. This is an extreme example of a brand’s localization efforts backfiring.

Other brands have found that presenting themselves very differently abroad can confuse rather than outrage customers in their home markets.

Pabst Blue Ribbon beer is a pretty working class drink in the US but is marketed as a classy, premium product in China; a localization that’s caused bemusement for Americans visiting China. Brands need to be aware that consumers are internationally mobile too, and their localization efforts abroad can be damaging if not carefully handled.

One other aspect of our international outlook as consumers is how increasingly similar we all are. Hipsters in North America are increasingly like hipsters in Bangalore; they may even work for the same companies. Brands that are targeting sophisticated consumers may find these target demographics have very similar motivations in the different markets they live in.

As a general rule, the higher your social class, the more international your outlook.

The increasingly international nature of the media means that consumers across the world may be consuming very similar media, meaning they have similar reference points.

Depending on the demographic you are targeting, you may find your audience has more in common with a similar demographic in another country rather than a different social group within its own country. As the world grows ever closer together in terms of the media content it consumes, this is likely to be increasingly true.

Selective localization for global brands

Many global brands opt to localize certain websites, products or messages for the various markets that they operate in. This allows them to retain the brand’s core values, heritage and provenance which increases their appeal in various markets around the globe. Provenance is crucial for many brands as it provides proof of authenticity and confirms the craftsmanship and quality of their products along with the brand’s history.

Luxury brands such as Gucci are aware how international their elite target audience is, and often choose to deliberately side step complete localization for certain regions.

Gucci’s international nature is part of the essential glamor of the brand, which is why the label avoids diluting its appeal by carefully considering what it decides to localize. So, while the brand has an English, German and French website which has been translated for the local market – its UAE website is in English rather than Arabic.

Other brands derive cachet from their country of origin. UK mid-market clothing range Boden has made minimal efforts to localize itself for the US market because it feels there are benefits associated with its British identity. The only concessions the brand has made have been to adapt currency and clothing sizes to suit local needs, really only meeting the practical essentials of a localization project.

Vertu, the luxury mobile phone manufacturer, has also been able to engage with ultra-high-net-worth individuals in emerging markets by using a selective localization approach – retaining their English brand name, strap line, and product names while displaying other messages relating to the product features and company history in the local language.

However, not all brands benefit from resisting localization: most will reap benefits from conceding the need to adapt to local markets. But it’s worth questioning the extent to which you embrace localization. As consumers becomes increasingly international in their outlook, the chances increase of a localization project becoming detrimental to your activities in the various markets your business operates in.


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