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Localisation: What it is, why it matters, and how it differs from regular translation

We could start this article with the typical “As the world becomes increasingly connected…” but we’ll spare you the cliche. No need to beat around the bush: If you want to succeed in the global market, you need localisation.

Expanding to new markets comes with a host of challenges, not the least of which are language and cultural barriers. Localisation is key to connecting with new audiences on their terms – whether through language, voice, design, or even just the way your website loads.

But what is localisation? And how exactly does it differ from regular translation? Let’s take a closer look.

In this post:

What is localisation?

Localisation is a term with a few different meanings, which we can group into three broad categories.

Localisation as a linguistic technique

At its most basic, localisation is a linguistic procedure whereby a translator adapts some elements of a text to better suit the target audience. This might involve:

  • Making sure the text uses local colloquialisms, idioms, and slang
  • Ensuring that it conforms to local regulations
  • Adapting date/time formats, measurements, currencies, and so on.

In this sense, you can think of localisation as a variant of translation that goes one step further to account for cultural differences.

For example:

Imagine you’re translating a weight loss guide from French into Latin American Spanish, and the original text mentions beef bourguignon – a classic French dish made with beef, red wine, and mushrooms.

This particular dish might not be so well-known in Latin American countries, so the translator might opt to use a more familiar equivalent – carne al vino tinto (beef with red wine). The aim is to produce a text that reads as naturally as possible for the target audience, evoking the same associations and emotions as the original.

Linguistic localisation is common in various industries, from food and drink to fashion and cosmetics. Whenever a text contains culturally specific references, localisation is generally required to ensure that it makes sense to the target audience.

Localisation as a marketing strategy

Another common meaning of localisation refers to the adaptation of a product or service to suit the needs and preferences of a specific target market, as part of a global marketing strategy.

Naturally, localisation as a marketing endeavour includes linguistic localisation, but it also entails adjustments to things like:

  • Price
  • Packaging
  • Product features, and so on.

Global marketing (also known as international marketing) is

“the multinational process of planning and executing the conception, pricing, promotion, and distribution of ideas, goods, and services to create exchanges that satisfy individual and organisational objectives.”

American Marketing Association

As such, it encompasses a wide range of activities, from market research and target audience analysis to product development and advertising.

When concerned with marketing, you can think of localisation as a subset of these global marketing activities, concerned specifically with making a product or service appealing to a foreign market. This might involve:

  • Customising the packaging and labelling of a product
  • Coming up with different marketing materials (e.g. an advertising campaign) for different markets
  • Changing colour palettes or product names
  • Changing the flavour of a food product to suit local tastes
  • Partnering up with local celebrities or social media influencers
  • Collaborating with a local company to produce a co-branded product
  • Engaging in local activation campaigns
  • Offering locally preferred payment methods
  • Offering local-language customer support
  • Redesigning an app interface to reflect local cultural norms
  • Creating marketing materials (such as website content, social media posts, and so on) specifically for a target market
  • Adapting distribution channels to better reach a target market
  • Pricing products and services according to local market conditions
  • Changing the links on a website to point to localised versions of the same site
  • Swapping images and illustrations for ones that are more relevant to the target market

For example:

In January 2022, Coca Coca moved into China’s bottled tea market with a new product: its first ready-to-drink (RTD) herbal tea product on the Chinese mainland. This was part of Coca-Cola’s attempts to better tap into the global ready-to-drink tea market, which is anticipated to reach USD 38.96 billion by 2027.

China sits at the forefront of this market in the Asia-Pacific region, so it made perfect sense for Coca-Cola to try and capitalise on this.

Coca Cola's localisation efforts in China
Source: LaiTimes

To do so, the company adapted its product specifically for the Chinese market. The tea – made with self-heal plant, a low-growing plant with analgesic, cooling, and antibacterial effects – is a product by HealthWorks, a Coca-Cola unit located in Hong Kong since 2005.

The company conducted extensive research to appeal to Chinese consumers, creating a recipe that uses traditional Chinese herbs. The product’s packaging was also designed to fit in with local preferences, with a minimalist design and natural colours that reflect the health benefits of the tea.

Localisation as an industry

The software and video game industries, in particular, have come to rely heavily on localisation to reach new markets. This has turned localisation into a fundamental part of their business models, and as of recent, localisation has become an industry in its own right.

Software localisation refers to translating and customising a software application for use in another language and culture. From adapting the user interface, on-screen text, and help documentation to changing date, time, and number formats, there are a number of different aspects that software localisation can involve.

The same is true for video game localisation, which also involves translating the game’s script, recording dialogue in the target language, and designing culturally appropriate artwork and graphics.

The global video game industry was valued at USD 195.65 billion in 2021, and it’s only expected to grow in the coming years. As such, the demand for video game localisation services is on the rise, with more and more companies looking to enter new markets by making their games available in different languages.

The difference between localisation and translation

Let’s shift back to linguistic terms for a moment. While we’ve seen that localisation can be a variant of translation, it’s worth exploring the key differences between the two concepts.

What is translation?

Translation is an act through which the content of a text is transferred from the source language into the target language (Foster, 1958).

This is usually done phrase-by-phrase, meaning that the structure of the target text (i.e., the translation) will largely mirror that of the source text (the original).

You may have heard of this type of regular translation as “literal translation” or “direct translation.”It’s the most common form of meaning transfer, and it’s what most people think of when they hear the word “translation.”

Instruction manuals, emails, informed consent forms, and other texts where meaning and structure are paramount usually undergo this type of translation.

Translation vs localisation

On the other hand, (linguistic) localisation is a more complex process that goes beyond simple translation. It involves considering the target market’s culture, customs, and preferences to adapt the source text accordingly. The purpose is to make the local-language text resonate with the target audience and endow it with a local feel.

This means that, rather than carrying out a phrase-by-phrase transfer, localisers can take liberties with the source text. For example, they might replace cultural references with ones that are more familiar to the target audience, change the text’s register to better reflect the target audience’s norms, or even omit certain sections altogether.

In short, while translation is a process of linguistic transfer, localisation is a process of cultural transfer. It’s about making a text accessible and relevant to a specific group of people in another culture.

Some common localisation strategies include:

  • Replacing idiomatic expressions
  • Adapting the text’s register (i.e., the level of formality)
  • Finding equivalents for colloquialisms
  • Rewriting jokes and puns
  • Omitting or adding information as needed
  • Reordering sentences or paragraphs
  • Changing measurement units
  • Altering dates, times, and number formats to match the target culture’s conventions
  • Converting amounts of money into the local currency

What about transcreation?

Sometimes – especially with advertising or promotional materials – localisation isn’t enough to make a text relevant to the target audience. In these cases, businesses may decide to go one step further and invest in transcreation services.

Transcreation is also a linguistic technique, but it’s closer to copywriting than it is to translation or localisation. In the spectrum of linguistic techniques, transcreation would sit at the creative end (right before blind transcreation), while translation and localisation would sit at the informative end (with transadaptation in the middle of them).

The more creative the text, the further it needs to move away from the source text to be effective.

Localisation vs transcreation

Transcreation involves recreating advertising or promotional materials in a way that speaks to the target audience on an emotional level. Emotional marketing appeals to a person’s feelings and needs rather than their rational thoughts, and it’s an incredibly effective way to sell products or services.

To write emotionally appealing copy, transcreators need to understand the target audience’s culture, preferences, and values in-depth. They also need to be creative and have a knack for coming up with catchy phrases and turns of phrases.

Transcreation vs localisation

While transcreation is similar to localisation, there are some key differences between the two. Unlike localised content, transcreated content is not necessarily a faithful adaptation of the content of the original text. Transcreation only needs to consider the original’s tone, intent, and style, not its literal meaning. This means that transcreated content can be entirely different from the original while still conveying the same message.

The type of content that most often undergoes transcreation are things like taglines, slogans, and other short pieces of text that need to make a big impact. By prioritising the emotional impact of the message on the audience, transcreation seeks to drive readers to take action, i.e., to convert.

Why is localisation important?

There are several reasons why localisation is important for businesses with global ambitions. The ultimate goal of localisation is to connect with a target audience on a deeper level, and this can have a number of benefits for businesses.

Entering new markets becomes easier

By localising your content, you make it easier for people in other countries to understand and connect with your brand. This, in turn, makes it more likely that they’ll do business with you.

Think about it from the customer’s perspective: if they can read your website or use your app in their own language, they’re much more likely to trust your brand and feel comfortable opening up their wallet.

Some businesses choose to start their expansion into new markets by resorting to machine translation (MT), but this is rarely a good idea. MT can be great for getting the gist of a text, but it hasn’t yet reached the level of accuracy needed for reliable translations. Customers can tell when content has been translated by a machine, and the errors and inaccuracies will likely turn them off from your brand.

By localising your content from the start, you show your target audience that you’re serious about doing business in their country. When you make the effort to speak their language, they’re much more likely to return the favour.

In fact, a survey by Common Sense Advisory to 2430 consumers in eight countries revealed that:

  • 72.1% of consumers spend most or all of their time on websites in their native language.
  • 72.4% of consumers said they would be more likely to buy a product with information in their native language.
  • 56.2% of consumers said that the ability to obtain information in their native language is more important than price.

A 2011 study from the European Commission corroborated Common Sense Advisory’s findings: Nine out of ten internet users said that, when given a choice of languages, they always visited a website in their native language.

Your competitive advantage increases

Local competitors will always have the advantage over foreign businesses that don’t localise their content, as they can connect with customers on a deeper level. If you want to stay ahead of the competition, you need to be able to speak your target audience’s language – both literally and figuratively.

As for global competitors, if they aren’t localising their content, this creates a unique opportunity for you to gain an edge over them. By localising your content, you can tap into new markets before they do and establish a strong foothold in these regions.

Customer satisfaction goes up

Modern customers have more choices than ever before. If they’re unhappy with your product or service, they’ll quickly take their business elsewhere. This is why customer satisfaction is so important for businesses, and why customer experience optimisation should be a top priority.

Localisation can play a big role in customer satisfaction, allowing businesses to connect with their customers on a more personal level. When customers feel like they’re being spoken to directly, they’re much more likely to have a positive opinion of the brand, recommend the brand to others, and continue doing business with the brand in the future.

Customer experience largely results from how well a business meets the customer’s needs. If your target audience can’t understand your content, they’re not going to be able to use your product or service properly. This will inevitably lead to frustration and dissatisfaction.

Following research involving more than one million customers across three continents, KPMG Nunwood developed a system that spotlights six key principles as the building blocks for customer experience success:

  • Personalization
  • Integrity
  • Expectations
  • Resolution
  • Time and effort
  • Empathy

Localisation plays an important role in all six principles, most notably in personalisation and empathy. The former is about using individualised attention to drive emotional connection, and the latter concerns an understanding of the customer’s circumstances to drive deep rapport. Understanding a target audience’s culture, values, and customs is essential for personalising the customer experience in a way that resonates, and that’s precisely what localisation does.

Revenue goes up

Lastly, businesses that localise their content see a direct correlation between doing so and increased revenue. In fact, a study from CSA Research showed that every dollar invested in localisation returns an average of $25. This is likely because, as we’ve seen, localisation has a positive effect on every stage of the customer journey, from awareness to purchase to post-purchase.

While there may be several ways to measure the return on investment (ROI) of localisation – increased web traffic, higher conversion rates, bigger basket sizes, more social media followers, etc. – the bottom line is that localisation is a smart investment for any business looking to succeed in today’s global marketplace.

A word of caution

Of course, with any business decision, there are risks involved. When expanding into new markets, there’s always the chance that something will go wrong. The key is to minimise these risks by doing your homework and working with experienced professionals who know the ins and outs of localisation.

To avoid common pitfalls, keep the following in mind:

1. Don’t try to do everything at once. When entering a new market, taking things slow and steady is important. Trying to do too much too soon is a recipe for disaster.

2. Do your research. It’s essential to have a good understanding of the local market before expanding into it. This includes finding out about the local competition, what consumers are looking for, and what regulations need to be followed.

3. Work with experienced professionals. Localisation is a complex process, so it’s important to work with experts who can help ensure that everything is done correctly. This includes finding reliable translators, editors, designers who are experienced in localisation, and project managers who can keep everything on track.

4. Be prepared for the unexpected. No matter how much planning and preparation goes into expanding into a new market, there’s always the chance that something will go wrong. The key is to have a contingency plan, a solid localisation strategy, and the flexibility to adapt as needed.

Localisation is a complex process, but it’s an essential one for businesses looking to succeed in today’s global marketplace. By taking the time to understand the importance of localisation and how it can benefit your business, you’ll be in a good position to make the most of this opportunity.

Related article: What Everybody Knows, Many Call Out, and Very Few Do Something About: The Ugly Reality of the Translation Industry

Maria Scheibengraf Crisol Translation Services SaaS Translation Services

Author: Maria Scheibengraf

Maria Scheibengraf is an English-to-Spanish marketing and SEO translator specialised in software (SaaS, martech, fintech), and Operations Manager at Crisol Translation Services, which she co-founded in 2016. With a solid background in programming and marketing, Maria has an in-depth understanding of the technical intricacies involved in software programs, websites, and digital platforms. Maria is also the author of The SEO Translation Bible.

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