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  August 15th, 2016 | Written by

The Multinational Branding Tug-of-War

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  • Making localization decisions for new overseas markets.
  • Should a multinational grant a distributor total license for its market?
  • Multinationals should balance the distributor’s local expertise with the right corporate branding.

When a US exporter enters a distribution partnership in an overseas market, localization (commonly abbreviated L10N) decisions must be made. Questions of control ensue.

The distributor wants the freedom to localize and sell the product in their own way, given their understanding of their own culture, language, and regional trends. The multinational wants to control the presentation of the company image, to maintain some semblance of brand coherence across markets.

On one extreme, the multinational could grant the distributor total license. The distributor, after all, is embedded in the culture. In many if not most cases, the person or persons comprising the operation are native-born, native speakers, with pre-existing contacts and credibility within their community. They know what appeals to their countrypeople.

On the other extreme, the multinational could issue branding and L10N directives from the top down. This makes a certain amount of sense, given that their centralized marketing division has probably invested extensively into crafting the company image and messaging.

Ideally, the multinational will strike a balance that harnesses the distributor’s local expertise while imposing the right corporate branding and procedural constraints. McDonald’s is typically invoked as a model of such corporate-local branding, with their consistently McDonaldian arches and color scheme combined with regionally-specific cuisine. Companies in industrial and manufacturing sectors, obviously, will have a very different set of localization challenges than does a fast-food chain. Still, all multinationals, regardless of industry, will need to resolve the following.

Translation: Does the central office engage a language services provider (LSP) of its choosing, or does the distributor tap local resources (freelancers or in-country LSPs)?

Branding: The distributor will typically use the corporate logo, possibly a slogan, but beyond that, what should stay internationally consistent and what should be tweaked?

Marketing copy (brochures, advertisements, website, social accounts, etc.): Corporate doesn’t know the culture as well as the distributor. However, if they give the distributor free reign, what is the responsibility of headquarters for unforeseen results of messaging gone wrong?

Technical content: Who make decisions regarding the localization of user manuals, schematics, maintenance instructions, safety warnings and the like? Who ensures the technical accuracy of these, and who bears the liability, potentially significant, of error?

Like it or not, liability usually trickles back to the multinational. For this reason alone, the company should maintain close involvement in the L10N process. Conversely, the distributor offers a wealth of local knowledge that headquarters dismisses at their peril.

Often, the perfect allocation of L10N influence involves a proactive distributor submitting detailed localization proposals to the central office, and a corporate marketing division with a commitment to maximum distributor involvement and influence. Depending on the liability—pharmaceutical manufacturers have far greater exposure than does a sportswear brand—it may be better for a distributor to handle translation in-country with corporate review. Or, it may make more sense for the multinational to use the same translation providers across all their overseas concerns.

In a highly technical industry such as aerospace or biotech, the multinational will almost always want to handle (or at least thoroughly review) localization of technical content. For such texts, cultural nuance plays a smaller role and technical accuracy a larger one. The operating instructions for a centrifuge leave little room for metaphor or nuance. Any competent translator, fluent in the source and target languages and having subject matter expertise, can do the job, even if she has never lived in the distribution country.

On the other hand, local nuance looms larger in sales copy, advertising campaigns, and website content. Slang, cultural mythologies, regional subdialects and insider jokes can be invisible to an outsider, but can quickly derail a message. For such translations, a couple of options present themselves. Firstly, a corporation could handle the translation centrally and then have the in-country team review and give feedback. Secondly, the reverse could occur: the distributor’s localization experts perform the translation, with a subsequent corporate review to ensure consistency with the company’s overall image. In either case, both parties should be heavily involved.

Whatever the industry or the particular localization project, exporter and distributor should have a close working relationship. L10N authority, responsibilities and procedures should be clearly defined. At the same time, flexibility should prevail: each localization situation rarely fits any predefined plan perfectly. If the relationship is one of mutual respect and long-term cooperation, the localization process should be relatively smooth sailing.

Jacob Andra heads industry research and analysis for US Translation Company, a localization firm that specializes in helping US industry reach overseas markets.