When the Bing search engine first launched in China in 2009, locals were left puzzled by its brand name, which translated as the Chinese word for ‘virus’, an ironic and unpromising title for a digital platform. The company’s failure to identify and deal with this language barrier resulted in a PR flop. Consequently, Bing lost out against their competitor ‘Yahoo’, who became the most popular foreign search engine.
When it comes to tackling international PR, getting lost in translation is a real risk in an industry that relies so heavily on communication. So what else must PR pros be aware of when campaigning overseas?
Working with our international PR counterparts
Firstly, liaising with international companies isn’t all about hiring an interpreter. And rather than trying to brush up on your French GCSE, you will get much further if you respect and comprehend everyday habits and routines.
Let’s examine Europe, if you want to start a PR campaign in August you will be setting yourself up for a difficult challenge. Cities are deserted during this month, as most countries in Western Europe have time off for two or three weeks, leaving metropolitan areas in total emptiness (tourists aside). It’s pretty much guaranteed that no one will be checking their emails.
Moving upwards, Scandinavia and the Netherlands often go by a four-day working week, based around 29 hours. As their ethos is to be efficient and meet deadlines in a short period of time, as a PR pro you would have to get up to speed with this way of working.
In Italy and Spain, lunch hours are sacred and it is unimaginable that one would eat a quick sandwich at their desk - yes UK, I’m looking at you! Agencies prefer face-to-face interaction when discussing business, by getting away from their computer screen and incorporating pizza or tapas into meetings. Something that I’m sure us Brits wouldn’t mind adapting to!
Culture is key
Respecting international ways of working is a great start, but gaining a deeper understanding of a country’s culture will truly enable us to create an effective PR campaign.
When white teeth advocate, Pepsodent, decided to launch in Taiwan they were faced with a big challenge. They failed to understand that chewing betel nut, which blackens teeth, is a big part of the country’s engrained culture. And in the Middle East, Ikea faced a PR scandal in Saudi Arabia, when it publicised women with their full face exposed, a big offence in a country where women are expected to be covered up in public.
It is important to accept that your brand may serve a whole different purpose abroad. In Italy fast-food giants such as KFC, or even Starbucks, are more of a tourist attraction than an everyday choice for locals. Italians are accustomed to eating at home with their family or in their favourite ‘pizzeria’ with McDonalds the place to eat something out of the ordinary. Usually the clientele will be just as foreign as the food.
Even if your product does experience the same demand abroad, your PR strategy will often need to be tailored to the specific audience. For example, when a Miami-based company released a new Sony product in Ecuador, they suggested planning a launch event with a timed programme to gain media coverage. However, Latin Americans tend to have a distorted view of time; culturally, punctuality is not a major priority. As a solution, the company organised an open house so the media could come and go as they pleased.
The art of language
Creating a credible campaign abroad isn’t just about finding the equivalent of a word or making a sentence sound ‘grammatically correct’. It’s about the style, tone and rhythm, with it even coming down to knowing where to jot the right accent on a word.
Press releases, the fundamental tool of PR, are tackled differently in every country. For example, in the UK the most important piece of information goes at the beginning of the sentence, whilst in Russian it must go at the end. Some places prefer a more poetic and dramatic style of writing, painting a story rather than detailing the sheer facts, whilst others favour an objective, robust and straight-to-the-point read.
Above all, understanding colloquialisms and different connotations within language, is important to avoid literal translations, which may cause PR fails. Take the Chevrolet car ‘Nova’, which sold terribly in Latin America. ‘No va’ translates as ‘doesn’t go’ in Spanish, which isn’t the best marketing tool for a vehicle. As a result, Chevrolet had to withdraw from the market, causing losses to profits and damaging credibility.
When we plan a PR campaign at home, thorough research goes into analysing our target market and audience. This same commitment and investment should go into tackling PR abroad, but we must times it by ten. We must be observant, curious and respectful towards the different cultural ways of life, in order to truly understand the nuances of each country and community. Achieve this and your global PR campaigns will thrive anywhere.