Blog | The Importance Of Culture And Language When Exporting

10th July 2017

When it comes to exporting products and services to foreign territories, we all understand that the size of opportunity is significant. The government is using every means at its disposal to promote exporting to British businesses, and eCommerce is an important key to this.

It has been estimated that the world’s ecommerce sales will be worth $4.1 trillion in 2020, accounting for nearly 15% of all retail spending during the year. Any ambitious business should be aiming to capture some of this enormous growth.

Many businesses are hesitant to venture into foreign territory. They cite concerns such as the hassle of legal issues, taxation, transportation, and language.

While it’s right to be cautious about risks, it’s important to recognise the opportunity that exporting presents – to sell one’s products or services to a much wider range of potential customers, thereby spreading risk and increasing custom.

However, in order to begin selling abroad, one important factor to understand is the importance that language and culture plays in exporting.

doing business abroad

Doing Business Abroad

When venturing to foreign shores to do business, you should be equipped with an understanding of some of the key cultural differences in the way people behave.

For example, some cultures value face to face communication over online, as is the case in Latin American countries. In places like Brazil and Italy, people are comfortable with tactile, close contact, whereas in others there is a greater emphasis on personal space. So, your business meetings should reflect these kinds of practices accordingly!

And remember that small details do matter. In some cultures, turning up with a business card which has been translated is essential to a successful interaction, while ensuring one’s brand name is effective could be vital in another.

Taking all the nuances of culture into account while conducting business is something which is revealed gradually, over time, and requires effort, and good advice.

Locals Prefer Good, Native Content

Many surveys have shown that people prefer to read websites in their native language, and it may surprise you to realise that this outweighs considerations such as the price. For example, it has been discovered that 9 out of 10 internet users prefer to read a web page in their own language, if given the choice.

However, machine translation using the likes of Google Translate is not recommended, and is a poor replacement for proper marketing-focused translation services, which take into account the specifics of a native language, phraseology, and matters such as search engine optimization. In other words, it’s best to get the help of an expert when translating onsite content.

Language and Culture

The Power Of Pictures

You may think that pictures, icons and images have an impact which is universal, but you’d be wrong. For example, the Swastika is held in many countries to be a symbol of absolute evil, but in India, where it originates from, it is held to be a symbol of spiritual values, and often appears in Buddhist monasteries. Examples like this show that you can take nothing for granted.

Differences can often be far more subtle. For example, happy smiling workers in an office may work when marketing stationery products to an American audience. Meanwhile, French and European audiences would consider such a demeanour to be unprofessional and out of place for a working environment.

On another note, you may be aware of the saying ‘A picture speaks a thousand words’. When promoting your products, you may find that using images can in fact replace the need for lengthy written explanations, thereby avoiding the pitfalls and costs that can come with translation.

Ikea are a hugely successful business that use this idea to great effect. Their popular catalogues are packed with iconic images of their products, with their quirky and distinctive product names – but no description. This means largely the same catalogue can be reproduced for different audiences around the world, with little in the way of translation costs.

Don’t Assume Anything

If you are going to make use of translation, it’s important to understand and be clear about what you are requesting and respect local cultural differences. You may, for example, be fully aware that there are significant differences between American and British English.

So, when ordering Spanish language translation, it’s important to clarify which territory you’re selling into. Is it Spain, Mexico, Argentina or elsewhere? Each has its own variant of this rich and popular language.

Festive Variations

It’s easy to assume the big festivals – Easter, Christmas, Valentines Day, etc are celebrated in exactly the same way, at the same time as the UK. There are in fact countless variations of each of these festive holidays in regions around the world, which is useful to know when you’re selling gifts, whether it’s love hearts or easter eggs.

For example in Haux, France, the tradition of easter eggs is taken to a different level with 4,500 eggs cracked and served in a giant omelette for 1,000 hungry townsfolk, a tradition that stems from Napoleonic times. In Brazil, they craft straw dolls to represent Judas, while in Spain they have a carnival with flotillas during what they call ‘Semana Santa’ (Holy Week).

If you can’t assume what people do on festive days, it’s important to note you can’t assume when they celebrate them, either. In the Czech Republic, Valentine’s Day is celebrated on May 1st, while in Slovenia, what they call Dragobete, or ‘The day the birds are betrothed’ is on 24th February. There are countless other variations in the dates and types of celebrations of this apparently universal festival, around the world.

TL:DR – Speak in a Language They Can Understand

A quick look at your Google Analytics account can reveal that you have traffic from countries around the world coming to your website. But how do you leverage that traffic effectively?

The goal of any intervention into a foreign market is to increase the number of sales for your business, and to do that you must speak to potential customers in their native language. There has been a great deal of research on this topic of language and buying patterns.

The results of research by the Common Sense Advisory show that 75% of buyers in non-English-speaking countries would rather choose a product in their own language rather than one in English. Meanwhile, 64.3% of internet users with little or no English ability would prefer to pay more for products or services with information they could read in their own language.

In this sense, it’s vital to develop a process for international communication alongside your export strategy. The key is making sure your international buyers have enough information, and compelling enough brand experience in their native language to buy your product.

As Nelson Mandela explained once said:

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”

Helen Provart

Helen is our language and culture expert for international projects, leading the translation and cultural enhancements for companies looking to sell more abroad. A member of the Greater Manchester Chamber Assembly and MD of Peak Translations, Helen is our consultant and team member for our key accounts.