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Found in Translation: 7 Global Content Marketing Do’s and Don’ts


When it comes to lessons in translating marketing content, who can forget the tale of the Nova debacle?

In what was purported to be a classic marketing blunder, General Motors (GM) introduced its Chevy Nova to the Mexico market several decades ago without any consideration of how the automobile’s name translated. “Nova,” as anyone with a little Spanish knows, translates to “doesn’t go.” Who on earth would buy a product designed to get you from point A to point B with that name? Nary a soul, the story goes: The Nova’s Mexico sales fizzled and GM halted its massive marketing effort and then rebranded the car with a new name, to a highly skeptical buying public.

Today, translation savvy is becoming more and more important as more companies translate their marketing messages—and especially their content—into multiple languages. “Today’s marketers are being forced to adapt their approaches to meet the demanding needs associated with the rise of globalization,” says Paige O’Neill, CMO of software and services translation company SDL. The change is not a smooth one so far: A majority of U.S.-based companies (65%) dedicate less than 5% of their budgets to reach non-English-speaking customers and prospects outside the U.S., according to a survey by translation technology company Smartling.

Content-marketing translations need to demonstrate cultural awareness if they are to succeed.

The process starts with crafting the right marketing message in one’s native tongue. “Your business case is your business case, and that should translate globally,” says Glen Springer, president of marketing automation and content management firm Gabriel Sales. “The anchor sales story you tell doesn’t really change and neither does the business case. That’s where you need to start.”

From there, marketing-translation experts say, it helps to adhere to the following do’s while side-stepping several don’ts: 

Do enlist experts—and create style guides

As part of its effort to reach more Spanish-speaking healthcare-insurance buyers in the U.S., Health Care Service Corporation (HCSC), the country’s largest customer-owned health insurer, invested significant resources to adapt its marketing messages. This adaptation extends beyond basic English-to-Spanish translation; the approach includes detailed market and behavioral research, changes in how marketing is delivered (e.g., more via cell phone than via email), and the acquisition of new marketing talent. In 2013 HCSC hired Director, Demographic Market Segments Carlos Garcia partly due to his impressive record connecting with the U.S. Hispanic market in the cell phone industry. Garcia has also hired translation experts. “The most important lesson for any organization starting out in this space is to rely on the experts,” he notes. “Literal Spanish translations have proved ineffective.”

HCSC created a Center of Translation/Adaptation Excellence whose mission is to ensure that the essence of its English marketing message is adapted to Spanish. “It is never a word-for-word literal translation,” Garcia says. “To be successful, we created a glossary of terms and a style guide to ensure that we are consistent in how we communicate in Spanish.”

Don’t neglect quality

Nataly Kelly, vice president of marketing at Smartling, describes subpar quality as “one of the biggest translation pitfalls that should be avoided.” Some marketing organizations, in their rush to get content translated quickly and cost-effectively, give short shrift to the accuracy of the translation they ultimately deliver to customers and prospects. “Poor translations tell customers you don’t really care about their experience, which can lead to lost sales and brand damage,” Kelly explains. “Quality is king, and content marketers must choose their translation resources wisely.” Expert human translation is the best way to ensure high-quality multilingual content; it is also more time-consuming and expensive than computer-generated translation tools (and more expensive compared to translations performed by bilingual employees or volunteers).

Don’t translate everything

Translate strategically regarding languages, channels, and methods. “Just because your customer base speaks 30 different languages doesn’t mean you have to translate content into all of them,” says Kelly, who recommends limiting translation to priority languages that deliver the most ROI. U.S. companies that sell domestically only, for example, should consider translating content into Spanish; U.S. businesses that also sell in Canada should consider French translation. Translation management technology can simplify, streamline, and reduce costs associated with the creation, management, and delivery of multilingual content; consider using this technology in tandem with human translation experts who can spot subtler language and cultural nuances.

Do collaborate, early and “glocally”

When Amway created a campaign celebrating the 80th anniversary of its Nutrilite supplement brand last year, the world’s largest direct-selling company rolled out content in a “glocal” manner, according to Kanan Banerjee, Amway’s vice president, global nutrition marketing. “The biggest challenge is coming up with global content that is also personalized to ensure nothing is lost in translation across locations, languages, and cultures,” Banerjee explains. “In our experience the best content is that which is glocal in nature.” The key to achieving that glocality—which treats the global marketing campaign as an “umbrella” under which local marketing teams adapt content to local languages and cultural preferences—is involving local marketing experts early in the campaign design process, Banerjee adds.

Do get visual

In a blog post on international holiday shopping, Adobe’s Loni Stark promotes the translation-friendly nature of visual images. “One way to protect against botched translations and misunderstandings is to use the universal language of pictures,” writes Stark, director of product marketing for Adobe Experience Manager. “In India, for example, a huge portion of the population shops online and browses on smartphones. But bear in mind there are dozens of languages and thousands of dialects in use throughout the country. That’s a lot of opportunity for even the most careful marketers to get it wrong. To communicate effectively to these mobile masses, marketers are moving away from text altogether and speaking in images.” Banerjee agrees, noting that Nutrilite marketing content embraces a “cinematic approach to video and a photojournalism approach to still assets.”

Don’t ignore cultural translation

Photographs and videos may translate more easily, but they’re not without their own pitfalls. A campaign for a comfy office chair that shows a manager kicking back with her feet on her desk may be well-received in the U.S. but turn off prospective customers in Japan. SDL’s O’Neill says that “not keeping up with and incorporating cultural or industry-specific nuances and idioms” marks a common content-marketing translation pitfall. Local language and cultural experts can help spot and correct cultural shortcomings. 

Do the basics once you’ve translated

Once content is translated it should be monitored for effectiveness, as well as for accuracy. “With the right marketing automation platform in place it’s easy to measure what story and pieces of content resonate and produce the most, and you can focus your resources on amplifying what works,” Gabriel Sales’ Springer says. Those insights also can help marketers prioritize their investments in translations, Smartling’s Kelly adds.

Given the increasingly global nature of business and changing domestic demographics, there’s little doubt that many marketing organizations will be spending more on content-translation in the coming years. One of the best translation investments is linguistic and cultural intelligence.

A sharp translator would never have fallen for the urban myth of Chevy Nova’s stalled launch in Mexico (or other Latin American countries as various versions have it). First, while “no va” literally translates to “it doesn’t go,” Spanish speakers would not use that phrase to describe a car; instead they likely would say, “no funciona.” Second, “nova” and “no va” are pronounced differently in Spanish; as the rumor-debunking site Snopes points out, English speakers wouldn’t think twice about a dining table brand named “Notable.” Third, a gasoline with the name has been sold in Mexico for decades.

That said, the Chevy Nova narrative serves as an instructive lesson to content marketers due to its staying power, which is a vivid reminder of the importance of intelligent linguistic and
cultural translations.

Did this article strike your fancy? See the entire list of articles from our 2015 Essential Guide to Content Marketing


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