Hands On

Foul Language: A Survivor’s Kit to Expanding Your Business Abroad

Google translate is fine for personal use, but not when it comes to your marketing. Beware of Slang. Make sure it means what you think it means. This is your due diligence list for introducing your brand into new cultures

Erez Romas
September 07 2017

You’ve finally reached that satisfying moment where you’re looking into expanding your business to new regions. I’m not referring to going from local to national distribution, but rather to marketing your products to a totally different territory – with a different language and culture.

Hopefully, before expanding overseas, you’re doing your operational research. Depending on what your product is, you should investigate legal matters (various regulation and compliance breaches could spell the end of your company), operational distribution costs, setting up a local representation (if applicable), and, of course, the specific country/region’s interest in your product.

Don’t Fail to Research

You get the idea: when expanding one’s business, one must do research.

Unfortunately, too many companies fail to research one crucial aspect of the expansion process: how to convey their marketing and/or retention messages to their target audience. And when we discuss the “how,” we’re referring to both the literal and cultural aspects of language. If you think this concerns only small companies with a lack of funds or human resources, you’d be surprised to learn that major brands have also experienced massive localization failures.

Before we dive into the distinction between language and message, there are two important clarifications to make. Firstly, the word “localization” is an extremely important word. Research has shown that customers are hungry for new products and generally favor a changing market, but they are still more prone to try out products marketed by brands they already know and trust.

“Local” doesn’t necessarily mean that a product must be produced in a specific country, but rather that it’s been around for a while and that clients feel comfortable with it, as if it’s a part of their daily life. In the case of customer onboarding and retention, the word “local” is interchangeable with the word “comfortable.”

For example, even within the same supermarket chain, it’s likely you’ll prefer your local branch over one in a different city or area. Why? In your local branch you already know exactly where products are located and you don’t need to spend too much time locating your favorite cereal.

Technology’s Honey Trap

Technology has immensely impacted how companies distribute their products abroad. One aspect is accessibility – thanks to the internet you can nowadays easily access foreign markets without needing to actually open stores. But technology also added an extremely important tool to the expanding company’s marketing toolbox: fully/semi-automated translation (or, to use the official term, Statistical Machine Translation or SMT), an algorithm-powered software that creates translations based on the likelihood that a certain word will appear in a specific place.

Looking at the most popular SMT to-date, Google Translate, the numbers speak for themselves: As of mid-2016, over half a billion people around the world are using the service, a number equivalent to the entire EU population. 100 million of those use it on a daily basis in their 193 inter-translatable languages.

But in stark contrast to the internet revolution, which created more expansion opportunities than hazards, machine translation’s ratio works the other way around, meaning there are more hazards than opportunities. In fact, it is almost common knowledge that businesses must not use these services for their business needs when interacting with clients. When it comes to translating your services into foreign languages, there is really no equivalent to the human touch.

When considering expanding overseas:

  1. Language matters – it’s crucial which words you use
  2. The message is not just in the words. The implication of your messages varies from country to country, and what may signify one thing in one place, could convey a different – or totally opposite meaning – in another

Words may have a similar meaning, but sometimes finding the exact same translation may become tricky business. Let’s take brand names as an example. Many brands hope to ride the wave of their international success by maintaining their original brand. Take Ford Pinto for example – when launching the business in Portuguese-speaking countries, the American vehicle corporation discovered that the word “Pinto” is a derogative term for a male with small genitalia. There’s also Persian razor brand “Tiz,” that tried expanding to the surrounding Arab countries, only to discover that “Tiz” in Arabic means a person’s rear.

What’s in a Name? Everything!

It doesn’t matter if you’re a company with a global presence or not – before expanding elsewhere you must make sure that your target audience will accept your brand and product’s name– otherwise don’t even bother. Take the time and cash and invest in researching acceptable variations without giving up on your brand identity. You can always choose brand/product names that are still in line with what you perceive as your company’s values and messages.

All it takes for the consumer to feel discomfort or even contempt is reading a translation where the words or messages simply sound “off”, or foreign (usually a result of a direct translation). In many cases, these feelings do not even exist on the conscious level, but they unconsciously prevent the client from opening their wallet.

Our advice: If you do not wish to hire a full-time localization professional, at least pay a student/professional who lives in the target market to go over your materials and pin-point problematic words or terms.

Lastly – let’s talk about implication and slang. It’s important to distill the main points you must take into consideration:

  1. Slang:
    • Slang words are extremely tricky – they are almost never really translatable. In many cases they bear social luggage to which you are blind, and they may be very time-limited. The slang term may become outdated by the time you’re using it, or simply identified with a group you may not be interested in being associated with.
    • What could be a perfectly “legitimate” word in one language, becomes a slang word with a totally different meaning when translated. We found one case particularly amusing: When the Swedish vacuum cleaner manufacturer Electrolux launched its product in the United States, it simply translated it’s slogan from Swedish to English. The outcome: “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.” We’ll refrain from explaining this one.
    • Different cultures have a different tolerance level for slang words. What might be acceptable for one culture, could feel inappropriate – or simply “off” – in another. Make sure you look into any possibly offensive translations in your message before going public.
  1. Expressions and phrases: Thanks to cultural globalization (mostly through film, pop music and television), many phrases have been “converted” into foreign languages and become accepted to the point where people forgot they once only existed in English. We know by now that you can’t simply translate phrases. Your goal is to appear as ‘local’ as possible in order to reach people’s hearts and wallets.
  2. Implication: Each culture has its values and consumer conduct. Some cultures prefer a more aggressive type of marketing, some respect humility. The only way you can make absolutely sure your company’s slogan, texts, marketing materials and customer service practices are accepted is by working with focus groups of the target country, or simply let local people examine your materials and provide their feedback.


The guidelines are pretty straight forward:

  • Localization does NOT equal translation.
  • Human translation is better than machine translation.
  • Working with local people on localization is crucial. An insider’s eye plus due diligence means you can really fine-tune your message.
  • The bigger you are, the more local opinions you should listen to before choosing a localization strategy and implementation. If you’re small – run your materials through one or two people, to try and spot a minimal accordance between them. If you’re bigger – work with focus groups that provide the views of the dozens.

And lastly, remember: you must respect foreign cultures and adjust to them as much as you can. That respect will gain you long-term profit on your hard-earned reputation and revenue cycle in your origin market.


Erez Romas

For the last ten years, Erez has seen the financial media industry from almost every angle. He has worked as a correspondent and editor of foreign affairs in Israel's leading financial daily newspaper, Calcalist, later assuming the role of the paper's news desk's head. He left Calcalist to become Editor-in-chief of Finance Magnates, a global leader in news, research and events in the field of currency markets, later becoming COO. He is proficient in four languages, an avid swimmer and a swimming instructor for adults and children.

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