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Note to Businesses: Be Careful How You Say “I Love You”

Businesses can learn a lot from seeing what works in any good relationship.

Valentine’s Day is a time for people to let those they love or want to love know how they feel – and businesses should do the same.

 On a daily basis, companies focus their efforts on satisfying demands and meeting customers’ needs. A company’s ultimate success, however, results from maintaining and enlarging its loyal customer base. Businesses can learn a lot from seeing what works in any good relationship. Valentine’s Day is a reminder of how relationships are strengthened by expressing appreciation, and potential relationships are started by expressing interest.

 Just as knowing how to say “I love you” can be more complicated in relationships where barriers of culture and language exist, companies expanding into international markets need to carefully consider the way they communicate their appreciation and interest to customers and potential customers.

 When deciding which messages will woo customers in other countries, companies should remember that communications offered with positive intent are not always received positively. Without considering the audience, the choice of words, and the opinion of an in-country specialist, the messages companies send out may do more harm than good.

 Know to whom you are speaking

 If an American were to say “I love you” to an Arab by quoting Shakespeare, “Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate,” his message would likely fail to impress.

 Similarly, when companies expand across borders, they may try to win over new customers with the same messages that succeeded in their own countries. This can be a mistake. Without considering the traditions and culture of the country they are targeting and how their message will be understood and perceived, they may be wasting their money, or worse, creating misunderstandings and misperceptions.

 Before entering a new market, companies need to consider questions such as: How can I appeal to their self interests? What do they already know, if anything, about our product? Who in this culture will be making the purchasing decision for a product like ours? The answers to these and other questions will help companies send the right message to potential foreign customers.

 Don’t be too flowery

 Words often get in the way when individuals from different countries and cultures try to express heartfelt emotions such as “I love you.”

 Ultimately, in appealing to potential customers, a company must choose words that will come across clearly. The types of marketing materials companies use vary; nevertheless, all marketing materials aim to do two things – educate (create understanding) and resonate (create interest or enthusiasm). To do this, a company’s marketing materials need to go through two steps: globalization and localization.

 To globalize marketing materials, a company needs to remove all cultural references and craft or revise them until they convey only the company’s essential and most basic messages in a way that can be understood universally. This may at first seem counterintuitive as a message’s strength often comes from content such as idioms and metaphors. But such descriptive words are culturally dependent and confusing to outsiders. Globalized content, if well developed, is sure to be understood.

 Once a message has been globalized, it can be localized or made persuasive and compelling for a specific market. Localization is how companies make their message resonate with potential customers. The message is strengthened by adding locally appropriate references that appeal to the target market.

 One example of material that benefited from this process was a marketing brochure sent by a Korean company to a language service provider to be translated into English. The material used a lot of elaborate imagery and metaphors taken from Korean folk stories and fables. While these references work well in a Korean market, an American market would have been lost and confused. The material had to be globalized and then localized for an American audience.

 Companies can ensure the right mix of sincerity, clarity and resonance by globalizing and localizing their message for foreign markets.

 Run it by a friend

 In an effort to impress, would-be lovers sometimes come up with unrealistic ideas, and if different cultures are involved, the result can be disastrous. That’s why lovers need friends—someone to tell them they’re off track.

 With businesses, getting off track can happen surprisingly quickly as a result of misunderstanding subtle cultural nuances. These misunderstandings can easily take the form of bad marketing ideas. For this reason, marketing materials should always be reviewed by a marketing or language expert in the target country. In-country specialist can point out flaws and help make marketing materials more powerful.

 Different marketing materials need more review than others. The more technically oriented and less descriptive the marketing materials are, the more likely it is that their translations will be accurate and fulfill their purpose. Materials such as advertisements are more apt to lose their value in a foreign market and will need more in-country review. Failed communications can be disastrous to a company’s long-term success in a country, so the best practice is always to run it by an in-country translation provider who can point out shortcomings or an in-country marketer who can help develop effective marketing messages.

 Customers and potential customers will feel the caring and respect that such a carefully crafted message conveys and in return show their appreciation through repeated business. Valentine’s Day is a good time to consider whether you are getting this message right.

 Emmanuel Margetic is the director of marketing and sales for MultiLing Corporation and has been working in the translation industry for more than 12 years. Margetic has in-depth experience helping clients achieve international status and brand recognition through effective, localized communication and documentation. His role at MultiLing allows him to interface directly with companies, giving him a firsthand look at the challenges and successes of international business.