Tip Sheet: Reaching New Markets: Lost in Translation?


Given increasing globalization, the dissolution of borders and the booming economies of once-stagnant countries, it is remarkable how unprepared companies are to do business in other parts of the world. You can never take anything for granted. What flies in one country, or in parts of one country for that matter, won't necessarily work somewhere else. Not only is the language different; so is the culture and its nuances, its trends, its buying habits and its stakeholders. By not researching, and by parachuting your product or service into a new market without the benefit of due diligence, you risk alienating the very publics you are eager to embrace. Consider this example: The Coca-Cola name in China was first read as "Ke-kou-ke-la", meaning "bite the wax tadpole" or "female horse stuffed with wax," depending on the dialect. Coke then researched 40,000 characters to find a phonetic equivalent "ko-kou-ko-le", translating into "happiness in the mouth". It was later changed to "Shaolin Cola," Though funny at first, the result might have been disastrous. For a very specific market that is representative of the opportunities and challenges posed to U.S. companies looking to expand abroad, consider Quebec. The Canadian Province plays an important role in the distribution of goods across Canada, and to the eastern seaboard of the United States. Its major cities, Quebec City and Montreal, serve as strategic ports along the St-Lawrence Seaway, which links the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. Quebec's sheer size dictates its importance as a consumer market. With nearly 7 million people, Quebec accounts for approximately 23% of Canada's total population. The mother tongue of approximately 81% of Quebec's residents is French, further distinguishing it as a unique market. (In addition to being an extremely viable economy, the public relations industry in Quebec - and Canada in general - is thriving. Just take a look at the Canadian Public Relations Society's Web site, http://www.cprs.ca.) Nevertheless, access to this lucrative market has proven difficult for many companies who have tried to ignore Quebec's distinct character, just as access to new markets is denied by company's like Coca-Cola that fail to do their due diligence in researching the culture. The smart choice is to build new marketing plans around a place's unique demands, as the payoff is far too significant to ignore. Before attempting to infiltrate the Quebec - or any foreign - market, companies need to recognize the differences between foreign and U.S. consumer habits. Thus, the following must be taken into consideration: Primary stakeholders differ greatly, and recognizing the need to tailor the relationship building process accordingly is crucial. Within those parameters, and within the Canada example, the Province of Quebec differs greatly from its other Canadian counterparts, fuelled by distinct linguistic and cultural characteristics that must be addressed. Understand the business landscape in both legal and historical contexts. For Quebec, at the heart of the matter is a series of laws that have been passed by the Provincial government aimed at safeguarding the French language. The laws demand that all products be labelled predominantly in French, and that all outdoor signage and marketing material be restricted to French only. English language marketing materials can be displayed indoors; however lettering on any such materials must be no more than half the size of the French lettering. As a result, companies wishing to do business in Quebec must invest in the development of predominantly French marketing materials in order to comply with Provincial laws. Some international companies have made the mistake of trying to adapt marketing material used in France to the Quebec market. The cultural and linguistic nuances between the two peoples are dramatic, and any such adaptations will be negatively received in the Quebec market. The same rule applies to the assumption that English language campaigns can be literally translated into French. There is a cultural divide between the people of English Canada and French Canada, with each language having its own sayings and common phrases. While doing business in Quebec may appear difficult on the surface, those who succeed in developing successful marketing strategies will gain access to a very a lucrative consumer market. More broadly, for those agencies and companies looking to break into other foreign markets (or markets within the U.S. that differ greatly to those already tapped), consider these additional best practices: Understand distinctions in language, thinking, buying habits, culture and trends; Remember that stakeholders differ in every market and thus will think and react differently to products, services and marketing efforts; Surround your communications team with the "right" counsel, including executives with legal and auditing experience; When choosing celebrity spokespeople, conduct in-depth research to determine who is popular among your target audience, keeping in mind any scandals or political biases the celebrity may have. Icons in one country might be hugely devisive or offensive in another; Never assume that a literal translation of materials from English to another language will have the same effect or connotations. Consulting with a native speaker who is "fluent" in the art of translation is essential, as is hiring a staff of executives who can assimilate your brand to the local culture; and, Be prepared to deal with regional language laws relative to signage, advertising and promotional materials. It's often a surprise to people that these laws exist, but failing to address them early on can lead to litigation nightmares (and in a foreign language, no less). CONTACT: Esther Buchsbaum is a partner of Communications MECA, located in Montreal, and a member of the PRSA/Counselors Academy. She can be reached at ebuch@meca.ca.

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