L10n matters: successes and failures in localization

The importance of localization cannot be understated. That is even more true when we speak about localization in Asia. After all, it’s relatively simple to produce words in one language with their direct translation in another one. However, conveying the same message goes beyond literal translation and takes into account cultural and linguistic factors. Nowhere is this more important than for companies that seek to enter and penetrate new markets. An American or western company that has its sights on Asia, or alternatively an Asian company that has its sights on the west. The localization services that one employs must cater to the local culture, otherwise gaffes and pure, downright insults can occur leaving companies heavily embarrassed and with a lot of PR work on their hands. In this blog post, we explore three successful and three not-so-successful examples of localization to show that when done right, localization can impact the bottom line. Conversely, when done wrong, it can lead to a PR nightmare and a loss of reputation for the business in question.

Localization successes

Apple

Apple is the first one on our list. The company is well-known for its savvy and cool adverts in the west, but what happened when it tried to go further east. To Japan in particular? The company initially created a successful ad for the US market which involved the juxtaposition of a hipster versus a nerd comparing Macs and PCs, respectively. In a series of commercials, the two characters became much loved and it ultimately emerged that Apple products were “cooler” than PCs. However, a direct translation of this ad campaign in Japan would not have been as successful as in Japan, it’s considered low class to embarrass somebody. As this cultural factor was taken into account, Apple rather decided to use a duo from a comedy troupe whose focus was on the fact that Macs were more for weekend usage and for more personal work as opposed to PCs, which were for more official use. This message stuck with the audience, leading to the success of this localization in Japan campaign.

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Samsung

A Korean company, Samsung has never marketed itself as such and has taken localization seriously in its market entry, particularly in France where artistic design is very much sought after. This is why in 2010, the company hosted an art exhibition which displayed art works in HD on their 3D television screens. The first month of the exhibition saw a whopping 600,000 visitors!

Meanwhile, when it came to their mobile phones, they paid special attention to the French mobile phone market when they launched their own “bada” operating system. The company did deep research into the most downloaded apps for the local market and released localized “bada” version optimizations. These ended up being highly successful and in the space of merely six months, the OS went from zero to 2,000 local apps. Samsung’s success stems from its deep localization efforts, thorough research of the local market as well as hiring locally.

KFC

Let’s move to KFC and its presence in China. It’s well known that KFC’s slogan is “finger lickin’ good” and while this has previously created translation gaffes, when KFC entered China, this was not the case. Known for its fried chicken with a blend of 11 herbs and spices is the main selling point of KFC. And while this main USP remained unchanged, some other things did. After doing their Chinese localization research, KFC introduced local, China-specific food options to accompany their western offering. Examples included pots of porridge, traditional breakfast breads and some rice-paired dishes. This was a hit among both young and old as the young were more adventurous and willing to try the western food offering, while the older enjoyed the more traditional food pairings that KFC offered.

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Localization fails

localization services
Pepsi

It was around 40 to 50 years ago in the 1960s and 1970s when Pepsi chose to go the international route. With a slogan “Come alive! You’re in the Pepsi generation”, much of the English speaking world embraced the marketing and the campaign could have been considered a success except for a couple of localization issues. For starters, the same slogan in China was mistranslated as “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead!”, which can be considered seriously insulting for Chinese people who value their ancestors deeply. Meanwhile, the same mistranslation in Germany led to the phrase “Rise from the grave with Pepsi!”, which again was not an effective marketing tactic.

Honda

Moving a few decades further to the turn of the millennium in 2001, Japanese car manufacturer Honda opted not to change the name of the Honda Fitta when releasing their car in Sweden. However, the word “fitta” in Swedish is a vulgar description of a woman’s private parts. When the company realized this, they quickly changed the name to Honda Jazz in Europe and Honda Fit for the US market.

Parker Pens

Known for their luxurious pens and a brand that’s associated with luxury and prestige, in 1994, Parker Pens chose to expand its target market and reach a Mexican audience. At the time, the tagline for their pens was “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you”, which is all good and well in English. However, there was a mistranslation of the word “embarrass” to “embarazar” meaning to “impregnate” in Spanish. As a result, the headline, roughly translated, was something like this: “it won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant.” This was an important gaffe that was overlooked and left the company with a PR nightmare on its hands.

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Final thoughts

L10n or localization is fundamental. It’s crucial for a business’ bottom line. It’s crucial for its reputation. When a small mistake like a mistranslation or a direct translation without localization is done, it can have serious consequences. This is why localization is so fundamental. Taking into account a country’s cultural mores, their ethics, morals and beliefs, their religions even, their language and customs are all crucial parts of the translation business. Whether you’re involved in game localization or you’re translating advertising and marketing campaigns, it’s crucial to keep this in mind going forward to avoid affecting the bottom line and to keep the business’ reputation intact.