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Customising global content – it’s never one-size-fits-all

Customising global content – it’s never one-size-fits-all

It’s funny how the word globalisation is essentially a way to describe how the world is getting smaller. As technological giants – such as Facebook, WhatsApp, LINE, Google, and Apple – and their local counterparts begin to spread through every nation, we’re becoming ever more connected to our fellow man, regardless of where they are.

But while the distance may seem smaller, it’s important that we don’t make light of some key cultural (and linguistic, of course) differences that need to be navigated when we’re communicating with one another – particularly if you’re a business looking to talk to potential customers.

Generic, poorly-localised content – whether that’s PR, marketing or advertising – at best might bore, and at worst could offend and cause some serious reputational damage. To help you avoid the pitfalls, here are three things you should prepare for when coming up with your international strategy.


Let’s get the obvious out of the way – there is many a company that has fallen prey to translation gaffes. A couple of infamous examples include Ford marketing its Pinto model in Brazil (pinto being slang for ‘penis’ in Brazilian Portuguese) and more recently, HSBC’s unwitting ‘Do Nothing’ slogan. Let the laughter ensue.

But language choices entail more than double checking whether your product needs a different name abroad, or that taglines aren’t literally translated. It’s also about making a nod to local nuances, and understanding the gravitas of words. I like to use the example of the Japanese word natsukashii – the closest translation in English would be ‘nostalgic’, but while the English suggests long-gone childhood memories, the Japanese can be used in a wide variety of circumstances.


A tricky one indeed, as there’ll be lots of different factors in play. Is the market you’re looking to enter quite liberal, or conservative? Does it operate a hierarchical system, or is it a meritocracy? Do they care more about quality or price? The best way to check is to test your messaging on a small sample pool first before rolling out more widely.

A great example is Acer China who tested a slogan ‘Simplify my life’ as part of a campaign emphasising how affordable their PCs were. It didn’t resonate. After further exploration, it became clear that the focus on price was arousing suspicion among Chinese consumers that the products might not perform reliably. Normally considered a big-ticket purchase in China, consumers were far more concerned that their PCs would last the long-haul than whether it was dirt cheap. The brand changed their strategy and quickly doubled their market share.


What you may take for granted as common knowledge, or on the flipside consider revolutionary in one country, is likely to differ from another. Be careful that your content doesn’t alienate audiences by jumping the gun, or equally by teaching them to suck eggs.

When Boris Johnson visited Japan on a trade mission in 2015, for example, he attempted to position London as a leader in fintech, preaching the benefits of a cashless society to Japanese technology executives by whipping out a contactless card. Except the Japanese already pay for many services using their phones, let alone cards – the audience was, understandably, bemused.

For internationally-ambitious brands, the world has never been riper for the taking. But a bullish approach to crossing borders is not the way forward – instead, content needs to be carefully planned to ensure it’s customised to fit the needs and expectations of that country. Whether you’re going in alone, or working with strategic partners, take the time to understand these differences and be flexible enough to adjust your messages as required. If push came to shove, you don’t have to call the car pinto, right?


Are languages old business?

By Ruby Muir

‘Why bother when everyone speaks English?’, ‘There are other things that are more worth my time’ are just a few of the many comments heard about learning languages in playgrounds, universities and workplaces today. Throughout the country our priorities have shifted, increasing the void between apparently employable, practical and worthwhile skills and the study of foreign languages. With the removal of compulsory language study for 14-16 year olds in 2004, the number of students studying languages to a high level has plummeted drastically. This has resulted in a deficit of graduates equipped to transfer their language skills to the continually expanding global markets.

But what effect does this actually have on our businesses and global profile? There is some argument that a mastery of English is all you need when working and trading on a global level. Countless European countries raise their children to be bilingual with English and those that don’t are quickly implementing widespread bilingual school programmes to catch up. China, India and countless others, all operate with such a high level of English language that communicating haphazardly in other native tongues could be unnecessary.

But where does this leave us in reality? Practically this absence of language skills costs our economy £48 billion a year. Parts of this results from expenses to businesses who have to employ translators to carry out foreign exchanges where the level of English isn’t sufficiently high. For smaller business where this is unaffordable this means a loss of business. For a prospective linguist, this void creates huge advantage making them a valuable asset, able to communicate directly without an intermediary thereby improving their commercial opportunities. Even without a broad grasp of a foreign language, the ability to greet and exchange niceties in someone’s native tongue should not be underestimated. The care and effort of this gesture can very much enhance the tone and outcome of prospective negotiations and build beneficial relationships for the future.

languages, dictionary

Image courtesy of The Greatist on Flickr

Moreover, an understanding of a foreign language is accompanied by a cultural appreciation that can be useful when adapting campaigns and brands to foreign markets. Understanding the comedy and other reference points of a target nation can help personalise and enhance global marketing campaigns. It also allows adaption to cultural norms during exchange and negotiation. In this way, knowledge of foreign languages can change perspectives, remove perceived barriers and enable confident expansion in new markets.

However, with the looming execution of Brexit, the prospects of educating the future workforce in foreign languages are uncertain. Within days of the Leave victory, Danuta Hübner, the head of the European Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs Committee, announced that English will lose its official status as an EU language after the separation. With this change, it could be that for the UK to continue with some European trade, language skills will need to become a key priority. It could be we will need to focus on educating our children in Mandarin, Arabic and Hindi to secure reliable trade from beyond Europe. It could be that an independent Britain and the US will be enough to retain the Anglo dominance in global markets. Currently, no one knows.

Nonetheless, the EU contributions to language education, such as the funding of its study abroad programme Erasmus and living grants for students, are sure to be cut and are unlikely to be replaced through government funding. This could inhibit the study of languages for many prospective students, to whom living abroad for the compulsory year would be an unaffordable luxury. Depending on movement and immigration changes, the resource of native teachers and language assistants could be depleted, reducing the authenticity of cultural and linguistic learning. Again, no one knows.

All that is clear is that the shape of post-Brexit Britain will for the foreseeable future remain uncertain. However, we know for sure that language skills are a fantastically valuable asset to have within our businesses and workforces. It is clear that as a country, we need to adjust our attitude that learning languages is other people’s responsibility. We need to fight for our youth to engage culturally and linguistically to keep up with their counterparts in China, Europe and the rest of the world. Most importantly, we need to stop telling ourselves that the skills we gained from that bit of French we learnt in school or ‘the get by in’ classes at the local community centre aren’t adequate, useful or able to make a difference in international engagements.

Foreign investment requires foreign languages

As David Cameron currently attempts to entice the Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang, to invest huge amounts of money (anything up to £18bn!) into some of the largest projects in the UK’s pipeline, the importance of international trade, and consequently multilingualism, in the global market continues to be apparent.

While goods and services are becoming increasingly transnational, fewer than ten percent of British students choose to do any sort of language learning post-GCSE, failing to see the benefits of continuing their studies. In contrast, the rest of the world are fast leaving us behind with a recent European languages league table finding that Britons are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the worst in Europe at speaking more than one language.

The common misconception, which the majority of us are guilty of believing, is that the rest of the world speaks English so there is no need for our future generations to learn other languages. You wouldn’t be wrong in thinking that English is currently the world’s number one business language. However, with 94 percent of the world not speaking English as their first language and over 873 million native Mandarin speakers, the importance of other languages within the business domain shouldn’t be disregarded as foreign populations, economies, and investments continue to grow.

Photo: Crown Copyright
Photographer: Paul Shaw

Although Mr Cameron and Mr Keqiang will undoubtedly have a huge group of translators and interpreters surrounding them to ensure that their every need and desire is understood by the other, this kind of entourage is not sustainable for smaller, lesser-known businesses trading in a globalised world.

Being unable to communicate with a foreign company in their mother tongue puts a company on the back foot when it comes to clinching a deal. They are at the mercy of the multilingual company and their interpreter or translator. Instead of relying on their use of English, which gives leeway for miscommunication, we should be thinking about taking the initiative and encouraging the study of foreign languages.

I realise that I’m writing this from a completely biased perspective having recently completed a degree in French and Spanish, but after studying languages for over ten years I would find it difficult to list many negatives of being able to communicate in more than one language. Foreign language learning is not just about grammar or vocabulary, there’s a cultural understanding as well, making those who know foreign languages an asset to any business wishing to expand in the competitive global market.