Is It a Fine Idea or a Brilliant Mistake? Don’t Be the Next Cultural Blunder

Website localization plays a big part in the success or failure of a business in foreign markets. What the site owners often forget is that localization is not just a simple translation of text on the site. It also includes the cultural adaptation of the marketing content to include messaging, color schemes, product, and brand names, as well as the informational and regulatory adaptations such as shipping costs, custom regulations, and compliance to any local requirements for the e-commerce sites.

In the 21st century, we should be more informed on these requirements by now, yet many businesses are still making these critical mistakes. As the holiday shopping season is kicking off, let’s take a look at some of the mistakes that big brands have made recently so that we can learn from them.

In the U.S., J. Crew is a successful and very popular retail brand. Even the First Lady, Michelle Obama, wears it. Last March, J. Crew’s CEO announced plans to expand abroad via the Internet and by opening new retail stores in Europe and Asia. “This is interesting,” I thought, since J. Crew has pretty much failed its expansion plans in Japan due to several missteps since 2000.

The retailer’s latest fumble came after the earthquake and tsunami disaster hit Japan in 2011. J. Crew came out with a t-shirt specifically designed for the Japan relief aid. Its intentions were good, but the design wasn’t, especially to its Korean customers, who were offended by the map on the t-shirt showing “Sea of Japan” instead of “East Sea,” which reflects a non-territorial name.

You would think J. Crew had learned its lesson from that experience, and became more culturally sensitive. But from the images it put on its website this year, it doesn’t look like it.

While on the global site I clicked on “Change” next to the “Ship to” flag on the retailer’s site and selected Japan. When the “Japan” page loaded I was shocked to see a series of graphics with models in a traditional Japanese “tatami mat” room wearing shoes and sitting on a traditional Japanese table.

These are two big “NO-NO”s resulting in gasps and terror from those seeing this. This is about as “unthinkable” of an action as it gets in Japan and shows tremendous disrespect to the host.

I don’t mean to pick on J. Crew. Many other big brands have made similar mistakes, too.

If you think that any publicity is good publicity, think again. During the “Arab Spring” revolution in Cairo in 2011, Kenneth Cole’s tweet (by CEO himself) was criticized for being insensitive, and many tweeted to protest the brand in response.

PepsiCo was one of the first American companies to enter the Chinese market more than 30 years ago. “Pepsi brings you back to life” was one of its marketing slogans at that time. Unfortunately, when it was translated into Chinese characters , it meant, “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.”

The country code “JP” is commonly used to designate a Japan site directory on many global sites, but in the early days of the web I used to see “JAP” being used instead. I, of course, could not keep from contacting the site owner suggesting them to change it to “JP” because “JAP” was regarded as an ethnic slur toward Japanese, and was considered offensive. Many of them would thank me and change the label to “JP.” However, some insisted on keeping it since they are not using it to offend anyone. Does it make it OK to still offend someone as long as you don’t mean to do it?

Below are some of the quick ways to assure that your website and marketing strategy won’t be the next one to be laughed at.

1. Check your company/brand names in local language

If you have a resource (offices, reps, partners, etc.) in that market, ask them to go through the list of brand names for any potential issues. If you don’t have any local resources, at least use the online translation tool to see what it could mean in their languages.

2. Check the color scheme favored in local market

What colors are good or lucky colors, and bad or unlucky colors in another country can be quite different. The last thing you want to do is to offend or send the wrong message to your new customer base with some color you decided to use for the background or an order button. For example, the color red, which is used to indicate caution and danger in the U.S., represents good luck and celebration in China. It’s also a color of mourning in South Africa.

3. Check the marketing copy translation

You may expect for the translation company to provide the culturally correct translation, but it’s not likely when they are tasked to “translate” and not to “localize” the site. When the translated content is delivered to you, have it reviewed by the natives, preferably by someone who understands the industry well like your reps and partners in that market. Ask them if the translation, color scheme, and images on the site are appropriate or not. Do the same with the ad copy and the landing pages.

 4. Align to local regulations 

Research to find out if there are any requirements or standards for the websites in that market. In China, websites hosted in China must be registered with the government agency, and display the registration number on the website. In Japan, there’s a set of information that e-commerce sites must have on the site. You can certainly conduct business without them, but having the information will gain the local audience’s trust.

Take a little time and make an effort to make your business culturally smart, and to be locally successful this holiday season. Don’t be the next example of a cultural marketing blunder!

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