Where’s the Beef Across Borders

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Now that you have decided to offer your products in another country, do you have any idea how to market them? The marketing you’ve been using might not work well across borders.

First, everyone has heard of advertising or product names that did not translate well to another language. The Chevy Nova did not sell well in Spanish because the car’s name translated as no go. But selling well across borders is more than a matter of translating correctly from one language to another.

Don’t Just Hire a Translator

Even when you think you speak the right language, you have to be tuned in to local twists to make your marketing work. If you aren’t, you might not even recognize a customer who wants to buy.

In Birmingham–the Midlands, not Alabama–I got a blank look when I asked, “Are you ringing up at this register?” The clerks behind the counter needed to be asked, “Are you checking out at this till?” Until then, they did not realize I wanted to hand over money for some of their goods. The potential for misunderstanding is worse if you are from a country where everyone bargains over every purchase, and the customer is not (or vice versa).

Now that you have a taste of how easy it is to misstep even in a ‘shared’ language, test your ability to comprehend what customers think of three models of pliers.

You could get one at the pound shop, but it would be pants. Bog standard will set you back five quid. But if you don’t mind the cost, for less than a tenner you can have the dog’s bollocks!

If you’re British, you know exactly what that meant. If you’re from the States and ran to the dictionary, you wonder what trousers have to do with pliers and why anyone would want a male dog’s pair of privates. In Britain:

* ‘Pants’ means underwear, and it is also slang for something cruddy.

* Five quid is five pounds, and a tenner is a ten pound note. A pound shop sells items for a pound, like a dollar store in the States sells items for a dollar.

* Bog is slang for toilet, and bog standard is slang for the economy-grade quality that people settle for most of the time.

* Don’t use the last word in this example on its own-you’ll be swearing. But the last two words in the example, together, means ‘the best’ (although it’s still a bit too off colour for polite company).

Now look at a couple of quick remarks from the other side of the Pond.

Let’s drop off the deposit at the drive-through.

Drive-through banking is ordinary in the USA, but for the British, it’s bizarre. Hardly anything except McDonald’s has a drive-through window in the UK.

Did you see the price on that proposal? They sure are proud! But where’s the beef?

“They sure are proud!” means they are charging a premium price for a product that is perhaps not worth the price. This Southern expression is part of the daunting variety of regional sayings in the USA. The USA adopted the next phrase from a television advertisement a generation ago: an old lady peered inside her hamburger bun at the tiny portion of meat and loudly asked “Where’s the beef?” Ever since, it has been a pointed way to say that substance is lacking.

If it is this hard to translate ordinary conversation from one English to the other English, how can you make your marketing in The Other Country work?

It’s Their Culture, Not Yours

Every culture has its own favorite phrases, television shows, music, slang, and images. Your marketing in The Other Country needs to tap into their culture, not yours. If that requires campaigns entirely different from what works in your home country, so be it!

This is why you need more than a translator. If you don’t know the nuances yourself, find someone who is well versed in whatever makes The Other Country tick.

Staying with the USA versus UK for examples, one of the most notable differences is general implications about size. Big tends to be seen as good in the States: big portions of food, big cars on wide streets, big houses on large lots. (Even toilets are bigger, to such a degree that some Britons feel like they’re falling in when they use one in the States.) But the UK is only about the size of Michigan. Imagine if one out of every five Americans lived in Michigan!

This leads the UK to pack everything more densely. Big tends to be bad. Housing is more compact. Furniture has to fit in small rooms. With smaller refrigerators, freezers and cabinets, there is not enough storage for most people to buy in bulk to get discounts the way they might in the States. Instead, stores offer discount vouchers or promote BOGOF special sales (buy one, get one free) on small packages.

Because the UK has so many people in such a constrained land area, landfill space is as tight as cupboard space for the kitchens. Being wasteful is severely frowned upon. Despite an otherwise frugal bias, many routinely pay a little extra for the more ecological option, as well as recycle the packaging. Some pockets of the USA are similarly inclined, but more as a matter of choice than necessity.

Even Big Brands Stumble Across Borders

Even big brands falter when they step into another country. Tesco is a powerful brand name in the UK, comparable to the weight of WalMart in the USA. Both companies dominate markets in their home countries. Their entry into a town is dreaded by small locally owned businesses. But Tesco is having difficulty establishing a foothold in the USA, and WalMart’s presence in the UK is still very limited.

Notice that neither of them has pulled out. If your first attempt at marketing across boarders is a failure, don’t automatically give up. As long as you have chosen products that fit The Other Country, it’s a matter of finding a way to spark interest. You may not have gotten it right on your first try at home. Small wonder if it takes more than one try Over There!