When branching out into a foreign country, numerous local peculiarities may require your attention. Going beyond translation of your product or company literature, these may include learning about local cultural sensitivities, regulations or even a whole new alphabet.
So what must you remember to avoid stepping on any toes, becoming a case study in marketing nightmares or breaking the law?
I can’t read this…
There are many well-publicised examples – and urban legends – of brand names that were changed in some way to be acceptable or effective in foreign markets.
A very disruptive way of doing so – one that many companies are in principle against – is by way of translation. Coca Cola’s experience in China is interesting in this regard because it shows that prevailing linguistic conditions can change over time.
When ‘Coke’ entered China in 1979, changing the brand name was imperative because the local population could only read Chinese characters and not Latin alphabet letters. With considerable effort, Coca Cola found Chinese characters that were neither nonsensical when read by locals nor adverse in meaning, and the company became a model of successful brand naming in China and other regions such as Africa.
The company’s experience may well have been different had it only entered the country now. Not only can a far greater percentage of Chinese read English, but attitudes towards ‘exotic’ names have also become more accepting.
Similar to China, Japan has separate alphabets or writing systems for traditional concepts and for new inventions. Ethiopia (Amharic) and most North African countries (Arabic) have their own non-Latin alphabets too. But this is the exception rather than the rule, and globalisation has removed much of the need for brand name translation.
And yet, perhaps a level of localisation may still be necessary. For instance, Firefox is ‘iFirefox’ in Xhosa. Companies should consider how important brand name is to brand integrity, and weigh up the potential for mishaps.
That can’t be right…
It is advisable to choose neutral images in advertisements or collateral. In one case of localisation to produce text books for Venda school pupils, a display sign for a dentist did not make it into the final publication. The reason was that the target market was South African-rural, where clinics are common but dental practices not.
Naturally, this goes for scenery as well as cultural and anthropological factors.
Deciding in which language product and company literature should be published may not be straightforward. In Uganda, English is an official language and Swahili has recently been reinstated as one, but if you’re launching in Kampala, Luganda might be a better option.
Consider also that language is an emotional issue, but beware the increasing costs of language fragmentation. Luganda is the major language in Uganda, but is only understood by one third of the population. Still, they amount to more than 10 million people, which is easy to justify.
It behoves any company to avoid local sensitivities. The recent spate of violence in South Africa has impacted the ad campaigns of several brands.
A related example is the depiction of hunting as a pastime in an educational publication aimed at a local vernacular audience. Because the publishers didn’t want to encourage something that could be seen as violent, a more neutral image was preferred.
Many South African commercial customs are unique to our country. Remember this before saying “please EFT the funds”, “do you want a cash slip?”, “is that budget or straight?”, or “can I see a purchase order?”
South African companies often assume they know more about their fellow Africans than, say, American companies, but this is simply not true.
It is advisable to avail oneself of local institutions and nomenclature, for example state versus province, postal code versus zip code and so forth.
Partner on the ground
Translation into a local language may already be happening via an existing distributor. When you set up offices in that country, it may be advisable to let it continue until increased volumes require the scale of translation that only a language vendor can bring to the table.
Consuming products in smaller quantities is a fact of African business-to-consumer commerce. This has an impact on product design as well as payments. Unfortunately, much needs to be done to make electronic micropayments affordable, over the counter and on the Web.
One way of resolving this is to find ways of processing multiple transactions in batches, to get economies of scale. For individual small payments, PayPal, Skrill (Moneybookers) and so forth come into play.
In this regard, telecoms companies have an advantage – payment for small-increment services other than telephony, such as Web surfing passes, can simply be deducted from the prepaid amount.
Consider the impact of your enterprise on local communities and the environment. This might take the form of employing locals when exploiting natural resources, or any other initiative that makes sense in the circumstances. (Large-scale employment might be the last thing a tiny community wants.)
Above all, be aware
These rules of thumb, compiled from our professional experience and incidents in the public domain, can help shield you from reputational damage, disastrous sales or other harm as you enter Africa and other foreign territories.
Of course, they’re not a complete list, and what localisation problems befall you may be so unique as to apply only to your company or industry. At the very least, however, they can still be used to raise awareness among your executive as you negotiate the pitfalls on the road to success in a new country.
Francoise Henderson is chief executive at Rubric South Africa, a company that offers translation solutions to companies in the technology, marketing, media and publishing industries.