Localization Insights
Localization Insights

A Complete Guide to Culture Localization

Expanding into foreign markets is one thing, but striking the right note with the natives is a different matter entirely. Translating content from one language to another will only get you so far. If you want to succeed globally and resonate with new audiences, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with culture localization. 

In short, culture localization involves adapting products and services, marketing messaging, and associated content to the cultural requirements and social norms of a new target market. It’s a fairly involved type of localization, requiring keen insights into local customs and values. Only by understanding these can you hope to localize a product so it feels native and familiar to international users, rather than a second-rate import of a foreign product. 

Brands that prioritize culture localization typically enjoy deeper market penetration, increased engagement with customers, and longstanding loyalty. What’s more, it ensures you sidestep any potential faux pas that could tarnish your reputation indefinitely. 

Still confused about culture localization? Below, we’ll take a closer look at the concept and explore best practices for successful localization in any market. 

Understanding cultural nuances 

Translation rarely goes far enough in adapting content for new users. You can lift words from one language and retool them into another, but without a handle on the cultural nuances and specific symptoms of a different culture, you’ll struggle to create a message that truly resonates. 

Cultural sensitivity and awareness are key to creating fully localized, compelling content for new audiences. It’s an understanding of and respect for diverse cultures, recognition of language differences, and insight into local traditions and beliefs. 

Why cultural localization matters 

When you practice cultural awareness, you ensure that the context and meaning of your messaging are preserved. Local idioms and colloquialisms can vary wildly between cultures. Rather than simplify and sterilize content for easier translation, you should acknowledge and embrace these differences during localization. The more familiar the content feels, the greater the chance it will strike the right note with audiences. This can help a business seem more credible in untested markets, establishing trust and brand loyalty. 

Cultural localization also makes it far easier to avoid embarrassing faux pas and miscommunications. Fail to address cultural nuances or stray toward stereotypes, and you risk damaging your reputation for good. Many high-profile brands have learned this the hard way. 

When big brands get localization wrong

Take Nintendo as an example. In 2016, the gaming company attempted to cut costs by approaching several distinct countries with a single-market mindset. The same localization strategy for the Chinese launch of Pokémon Sun and Moon was also used for Hong Kong and Taiwan, despite consumers enjoying distinct localized content in the past. While Mandarin Chinese is spoken in all three territories, writing systems and dialects vary considerably between them. 

Another example of a big brand that got it wrong is Coca-Cola. Admittedly, the soft drink giant arrived with good intentions when attempting to crack the Chinese market. Coca-Cola’s marketing team understood that Chinese Mandarin was a nuanced language and, after much deliberation, settled on ‘kekoukela’ as a localized version of the iconic brand name. The problem? The phrase roughly translates as ‘bite the wax tadpole’ in Mandarin. Suffice it to say, the blunder was quickly retooled, with the more brand-appropriate ‘kokoukole’ taking its place.

Cultural localization strategies 

One of the most effective ways to ensure content hits the right mark with a target market is to adopt a transcreation mentality, rather than take a literal translation approach. Sometimes known as creative translation, transcreation gives the translator more freedom when adapting content into a new language. This can include replacing the occasional colloquialism with no clear equivalent or a more fundamental rewrite.

While certain types of content require a more literal translation, transcreation is usually the preferred choice for things like marketing copy. In fact, whenever significant cultural adaptation is called for, transcreation is almost always the best way forward. 

Localizing imagery and symbols

Imagery and symbols can have dramatically different connotations across the world. In certain cultures, a particular color may hold particular relevance. 

Take green for example. In many Western cultures, green evokes feelings of purity, nature, and renewal. However, it’s strongly associated with death in many South American cultures. In some Western countries, the color yellow is tied to themes like betrayal and cowardice. However, it’s associated with courage in Japan and good luck in Thailand. While established color choices may seem intrinsic to a brand, it makes sense to rethink them when forming a localization strategy. 

How certain symbols are interpreted by different languages is also something you’ll need to consider. Symbols permeate everything from brand names and logos to technical documents, so it’s important to ensure you’re not using anything that’s going to confuse or offend. 

Localizing metaphors, idioms, and expressions

Idioms and colloquial expressions are heavily associated with the cultural identity of a language. Mistranslating them from one language to another is generally unwise, even if you’re using a human linguist who’s delivering accurate translations. 

The vast majority of idioms are specific to an individual language and often have no equivalent elsewhere in the world. If you want to include metaphors and figurative language in your content and marketing materials, you’ll need to work with translators who understand the context of the original. Even if they can’t deliver an accurate translation in the target language, they’ll have enough cultural knowledge and linguistic nuance to be able to introduce a suitable substitute. 

Implementing cultural localization 

Cultural considerations should be at the forefront of your mind from the very beginning of your localization project. You may have already laid the foundations for localization by internationalizing your product. 

Cultural consultants can help you better understand the specifics of a target culture, ensuring you deliver relevant and appropriate content. You’ll also need to ensure that translators and other members of your localization team have all the cultural training and resources they need. For translators, focus on exploring cultural and language nuances like humor, idioms and expressions, and metaphor. For designers and developers, introduce and underline the role that text expansion and contraction play in localization. 

The role of cultural consultants 

Some of the most established brands on the planet have struggled to expand into international markets because of a lack of understanding of local cultures. To ensure your communications are on point, you’ll invariably have to bring in third-party voices for their insights. 

Cultural consultants offer a range of localization services and can be brought into play at any stage of the process. However, you’ll get the best results by bringing them in during the discovery phase of your localization project. Cultural consultants can help you identify and better understand the needs and wants of your target market while advising you on cultural norms as you start to think about adapting material for a new language. 

Cultural consultancy can also offer you feedback on your existing assets, determining how suitable they are for a new demographic. Cultural sensitivity analysis will assess existing brand messaging, imagery, and other collateral to determine how suitable it is for adaptation. Other issues surrounding things like gender, politics, and sexual content can also be flagged and advised upon. Armed with this feedback, you’ll be better positioned to deliver content that elicits the desired emotional response in local consumers. 

Leveraging technology and automation 

It’s tempting to dismiss artificial intelligence and automation entirely when localizing for a new market. After all, creating compelling content and messaging that resonates with non-native consumers often calls for the human touch of experienced linguists. While human translators and localization experts are essential to the success of any localization project, you’ll ultimately have to embrace some degree of automation. 

Without automation, it’s pretty much impossible to scale your localization efforts. However, integrating technology into your workflows doesn’t mean you have to make any significant sacrifices when it comes to quality. Certain tasks and textual elements can be readily adapted with machine translation tools, with more crucial content that’s tied to branding reserved for human linguists. If you must use AI to handle large batches of second-tier content, ensure it passes inspection by at least one real-live translator before it goes live.

Technology can also be used to lighten the load for human translation teams. With translation memory, previous translations can be reused, significantly streamlining localization workflows. What’s more, reusing these stored translations ensures key terms and phrases, brand details, and other pivotal elements remain consistent. 

Ethics and cultural responsibility 

It’s never a good idea to attempt localization with only a superficial knowledge of a culture or country. This short-sighted approach can often lead to target markets being poorly represented by threadbare stereotypes. This is not only likely to cause offense, it’s a clear suggestion to your target audience that you’ve failed to consider them as a distinct consumer base. An audience that feels sidelined and slighted isn’t going to respond well to what you’re offering, let alone offer you their unwavering loyalty. 

While cultural awareness is important, it’s not enough to ensure respect and avoid causing offense. For that, you need to be culturally fluent. When you’re culturally fluent, you’re correctly observing and demonstrating respect for the identity, history, values, and religion of another culture. More specifically, it’s about being culturally aware on a multidimensional level and isn’t restricted to communication alone. 

Promoting inclusivity and embracing diversity 

One of the key objectives of localization is to broaden your reach and tap into more diverse markets. Provided that it’s handled correctly, localization can also be an incredibly inclusive process. 

Provided that it’s handled correctly, localization can be an incredibly inclusive process. However, in order to be truly inclusive when localizing, you need to think beyond the official languages of a territory and start considering linguistic minorities as well. The majority of languages spoken around the world can be classed as minority languages, with countries like Bolivia boasting dozens of indigenous languages and many more unique dialects. 

If you’re serious about making your product as accessible as possible, it stands to reason that localization should include these linguistic minorities as a target demographic. In certain sectors, such as healthcare, robust frameworks are in place to ensure equitable access to services. While such frameworks are poorly represented elsewhere, they’re a useful model for inclusive localization. 

Localizing for linguistic minorities

It might seem cost-prohibitive to localize for underrepresented linguistic minorities. However, you can mitigate costs by considering these languages as early as the design and development stage. In the case of software development, a focus on linguistic inclusion from the off can greatly increase inclusivity and accessibility credentials. 

Even though overall speaking populations might be small, these demographics still represent growth opportunities. However, this is nothing compared to the positive recognition your brand will receive from fostering such inclusion initiatives. 

Future trends and outlook 

Nowadays, consumers don’t consider localized content and products a luxury. In an interconnected digital age, thoughtful localization and native experiences are now seen as the standard. If you’re not delivering this every time, you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage in competitive markets. Fortunately, emerging technologies are making it easier than ever for brands to provide consumers with exactly what they’re looking for. 

Emerging localization technologies 

Machine learning is nothing new, while artificial intelligence continues to be a hotly-discussed topic. While many industries have resisted the introduction of artificial intelligence, AI-enabled translations are an exciting innovation. These machine-generated translations are becoming increasingly sophisticated, with an ever-improving grasp of linguistic elements like context and humor. In the future, machine learning algorithms will have likely mastered the most specific of cultural nuances. 

However, there’s no substitute for a human linguist. Flesh and blood translators will also play a central role in localization, but technological advancements have been redefining the way they work. More localization companies are turning to cloud-based systems to deliver results, with these solutions offering improved accessibility and the chance to scale with ease. They also allow for far more collaboration between disparate teams, which is key to any successful localization project. 

Speak to localization experts today 

Localization involves far more than translating words from one language to another. If you want your brand to overcome barriers and your messaging to resonate with as wide an audience as possible, you need to think about cultural adaptation. Once you have a handle on cultural nuances, it’s far easier to create content that connects with users on an emotional level, converting one-time consumers into advocates who feel as though you’ve created something exclusively for them. 

Looking for help to handle localization the right way? BLEND can help you carve out a naive presence in global markets, granting you the insights you need into context, consumer behavior, and culture. Bringing together powerful AI technology with a network of more than 25,000 human linguists, our localization solutions are truly scalable. 

Eager to discuss your project in more detail? Get in touch with the team at BLEND today. 

author post

Corinne Sharabi

Corinne is the Social Media and Content Lead at BLEND. She is dedicated to keeping global business professionals up to date on all things localization, translation, language and culture.


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