Localization: A quick definition

Localization, often abbreviated as “L10n”, is the process of adapting products and print or other media to meet language, cultural and other requirements of a specific target market. It can involve modifications to products, manuals, brochures and other documents, software, applications and websites.

Localization vs. Translation

Commonly understood, translation can be formally defined as communicating the meaning of a source-language text by means of an equivalent target-language text. Translation tends to be literal and doesn’t resolve cultural conflicts resulting from content that is clear and unambiguous in the source language but which may have a double-meaning or not make sense in the target language. Translation may be the primary component of a localization process, but significant additional components of products or services that are non-textual may also have to be addressed. Examples include:

  • photographs, chart or other graphics
  • date and time formatting
  • phone numbers and addresses
  • color and image selections
  • monetary conversion into local currencies

Good localization is unseen

Localization is seldom noticed when done correctly. Products and services are launched in new markets without incident, consumers accept them without realizing they have been transplanted from elsewhere, and they become commercially successful. It is only when things go wrong (sometimes horribly so) that consumers notice.

Why localization is so important

As the modern world becomes increasing interconnected, many companies find themselves having to communicate in multiple languages. While English may be the de facto international business language, most consumers worldwide do not speak it, and many more do so with only a low level of proficiency and comprehension. Specifically, about 508 million people, or six percent of the total world population are native English speakers, and 75 percent speak no English at all. In fact, more than 7,000 languages are spoken worldwide, approximately 2,200 in Asia alone, and 260 in Europe. The most popular language in use today is Chinese, with over one billion speakers. In other words, failure to localize an English-language product or service means that up to 94 percent of the world won’t understand it or pay attention to it, a very large market to ignore.

Localized corporate communications as a profit booster

Multinational companies require localization services for their corporate communications. Companies that employee workers from many different countries must be able to communicate effectively within their organization if productivity is to be maintained. Training programs, health and safety warnings and communications from management must all be consistent and comprehensible for people of every nationality. This also helps to guarantee worker safety and protect the company from legal liability. Studies have shown that employees perform more efficiently when management communicates in their native language. Localization is thus an effective strategy for increasing profitability.

Localization for legal compliance

In some industries, particularly in the medical sector, localization services are required for legal reasons. Most countries require medical devices and pharmaceuticals to provide labeling and literature to be translated into the local language. The medical industry is highly regulated, and top-quality translation of medical documentation is vital. These companies must choose localization services in compliance with quality system standards such as ISO 9001.

Sales and marketing needs

In a world of global consumerism, growing numbers of internet users, and increased dependence on online shopping makes global markets more accessible than ever. Companies require localization services to enter these new markets. Localization of products, services and marketing materials enables brands to be more successful internationally. A 2007 study published by the Localization Industry Standards Association concluded that every dollar invested in localization yielded 25 dollars in increased revenue. According to a 2016 report by Goldman Sachs, approximately two billion people will join the middle class by 2030. Many of them will come from China, as well as from newly-developing Southeast Asian countries. They are already providing substantial new business for the international travel industry. Southeast Asia tourists are flocking to Europe and the U.S. in record numbers. The middle class is growing quickly in countries like Laos and they are beginning to purchase luxury items and vacations abroad. These new consumers want products, services and information presented in their own language.

Explosive e-commerce growth

Global e-commerce sales are predicted to increase to $4.058 trillion by 2020, making up 14.6% of total retail spending, according to an eMarketer report. Internet Retailer reported that e-commerce grew 18 percent in 2018 to $2.86 trillion. China leads the world in e-commerce, with nearly $899 billion in 2016 sales. Goldman Sachs reported that in China, “e-commerce is thriving because of growing mobile Internet use, low shipping costs and cheap unbranded products sold online.” China’s explosive growth in shipping is an indication that e-commerce is already expanding and has potential to grow even further,” the report stated. Any company whose long-term sales strategy includes a reliance on e-commerce needs to keep certain facts in mind as they consider the importance of localization. Approximately 26 percent of internet users are native English speakers, while 24 percent are Chinese and five percent are Japanese. To connect with 80 of the world’s online audience, 12 languages are required, while 21 languages are needed to reach 90 percent. In 2014, Common Sense Advisory surveyed over three thousand online consumers in ten countries around the world. It found that:

  • 56% spent most or all of their time viewing websites in their native language;
  • 55% only purchased from websites in their own language;
  • 51% purchased products only if local language instructions were included;
  • 74% preferred brands offering after-sales service in their language;
  • 72% wanted product reviews in their native tongue.

Getting it all wrong

When localization is done poorly, companies lose significant revenue. Mistakes are embarrassing and bad for a company’s reputation, affecting trust relationships with consumers and governments. In more serious cases, localization missteps can irreparably damage the company’s reputation and create ill will towards its brands. In the medical and pharmaceutical industries, poor translation can be a threat to public safety and even a matter of life or death. Obviously, a localization service must be chosen carefully. There are numerous stories of companies making embarrassing errors, often funny when they happened to someone else:

  • Pepsi’s “Come Alive with the Pepsi Generation” campaign was an epic failure in Taiwan when it was literally translated as “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead.”
  • When Kentucky Fried Chicken opened its first restaurant in Beijing in 1987, its slogan, “Finger Lickin’ Good” was translated into Chinese as “Eat Your Fingers Off”.
  • Toyota introduced its Prado SUV in China, later discovering that the name sounded similar to the Chinese word for “rule by force”, reminding many older Chinese of the 1937 Japanese invasion.
  • General Mills tested television commercials in Japan promoting the idea that baking a cake was as easy as cooking rice, before realizing that it offended Japanese homemakers who believe that rice preparation requires great skill.
  • Procter & Gamble’s initial Japanese ad campaign for Pampers disposable diapers included a US television ad, dubbed into Japanese. showing a stork delivering Pampers to homes. Consumers were confused why a bird was delivering diapers, since according to Japanese folklore, giant peaches floating on the river deliver babies to parents, not storks.
  • Orange was forced to change its “The future’s bright… the future’s Orange” ads in Northern Ireland because of the reference to the Orange Order, suggesting that the future would be Protestant and loyalist.