The Coca-Cola Company is the leading beverage maker in China’s $69 billion soft drink market, but the story might have been quite different if it weren’t for some smart and localized brand management at the very beginning of its foray into the country. Protecting the company’s valuable trademark was a high priority when Coca-Cola began to expand outside the United States. When the company turned its attention to China, it became clear that the trademark also needed to be transliterated. That’s easier said than done. Finding the nearest phonetic equivalent to “Coca-Cola” meant sifting through some 40,000 characters to locate a separate Chinese character for each of the four syllables — an enormous task in the pre-computer days of the 1920s.
However, before they could come up with the right four characters, some local shopkeepers had already made up signs that imitated the sound of “Coca-Cola” without considering what they meant. The results were interesting, to say the least: One sign read, “female horse fastened with wax” while another read “bite the wax tadpole.” This set the company’s legal and translation departments into hard-work mode to get its own Chinese label trademarked in 1928, with great results.
Today, Coca-Cola products are sold in all but two countries: Cuba and North Korea. This worldwide success was only possible because the company realized the importance of taking the reins of its own international branding through proactive translation and localization.
No matter what size your business is, you can learn a thing or two from this story and Coca-Cola’s success. For one thing, don’t underestimate the localization process. But it goes well beyond that. Here are four ways that a translator can help you take your business global:
1. Do your homework
One thing we have today that Coca-Cola didn’t in the 1920s is instant access to an Internet of information, where you can find tons of support for marketing products or services overseas. Check out the Small Business Administration’s online guidelines for doing business abroad. Then, search the Census Bureau’s website for U.S. Exports of Goods by End-Use Category and Commodity, Services by Major Category, and the Top U.S. Trading Partners as of August of 2019. These resources will lead you to plenty more so you can determine your company’s potential in international markets.
2. Know your target markets
Once you’ve assessed your potential and zeroed in on some markets, you need to understand your target market so you can tailor your business to it.
For example, will the names of your products and services be accepted or do you need to have them translated or transliterated? A good place to start, especially for small and medium-sized businesses, is your local or national translators association. Professional translators are much more than linguistic experts; they also possess an intimate understanding of the business culture in the target markets in which they specialize. Most associations have searchable directories online, where you can find a professional who translates from English into the language of your target market. By taking a proactive approach to your branding before entering the market, you’ll avoid a mishap that even Coca-Cola wasn’t able to avoid.
Once you’ve taken a hard look at your brand, it’s time to localize your entire storefront. And like your brand, this means finding professionals to translate and localize your website and marketing materials. A small team of translation professionals can likely help if your company is relatively small and only targeting a few markets, but you’ll want to consider contracting a language company if you’re looking at more than three or four. The specialists who helped you understand your target markets are a great place to start. Avoid the temptation to add one of those plug-ins that automatically translate web pages and blog posts, because you’re asking for trouble. Hiring professionals to handle the translation and localization will ensure that your foreign-language website really reaches and resonates with the 60 percent of consumers who prefer shopping in their native tongues.
4. Know what you say and sign
Speaking your customers’ language will likely go beyond your website and marketing materials and include communication with suppliers and/or local agents. Even if you’ve hired a local representative who both speaks English and understands the current laws for doing business, it’s still wise to have all important documents translated into English by a legal translation professional for you and your attorney to review. Taking a hard look at contracts before you sign them will save time, money and aggravation in the long run. Moreover, contracting a professional translator and communicating with customers in their own language does wonders for relations and retention, not to mention helping to avoid any cultural misunderstandings. And the expense shouldn’t be prohibitive. If you really want to up your international sales potential, hire an interpreter and follow up some of those emails with a personal phone call to your new customers!
Your business may not have the means to expand into as many foreign markets as one of the world’s leading beverage makers, but you do have the means to emulate how seriously Coca-Cola took the process. Before your first foray into the global market, consider the cultural and linguistic needs of your potential customers.
You’ll be miles ahead of the competition if you take the time to get closer to them and speak their language—and your company’s products, services or slogan won’t become the next online meme to mock clueless foreigners.