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How Brands Can Connect Authentically with Multilingual Audiences

Katie Powers

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Research shows that consumers respond more favorably to messages they receive in their native language. But brands must invest in making sure their multilingual campaigns go beyond translation.

In 1987, Braniff Airlines used radio ads to promote its planes’ new leather seats to the Spanish-speaking market in Florida. But the slogan, “Fly in leather,” failed to achieve its intended objective:

The direct Spanish translation of the phrase sounded like “Fly naked.”

After some speculation that the blunder may have been intentional as a result of the attention it brought the brand, it was confirmed to be a mistake by the executive who developed the campaign. Braniff not only failed to express its intended message, it failed to relay a commitment to its travelers.

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In the U.S., more than 20% of the population speaks a language other than English at home, according to 2017 U.S. Census data. Native English speakers make up only 25% of global internet users, according to July Statista data. And although 60% of the world’s population speaks more than one language, research from Eurobarometer suggests that consumers respond far more favorably to messages they receive in their native language. When brands limit their marketing strategies to one language, both in domestic and foreign markets, they could be missing out on a significant opportunity to connect with potential customers.

But a direct translation of a marketing campaign from one language to another isn’t enough; brands must listen and speak authentically to their consumers if they want them to engage with the brand’s message.

Jill Kushner Bishop, founder and CEO of Illinois-based agency Multilingual Connections, finds that when brands fail to connect with consumers whose first language is not English, it’s a result of cutting corners in areas where more thorough work is required.

“Budgets are tight, people are busy and translation becomes an afterthought,” Bishop says. “People might say, ‘Well, these people speak English [well] enough, so we’ll just keep [our content] in English.’ … You could still get a good result out of that, but you’re very likely not going to. If you want your user to understand your message, you have to talk to them in the language that’s theirs.”

Here are some tips for brands to consider as they look to connect with a multilingual audience.

Look Beyond Translation

Bishop emphasizes the importance of understanding transcreation, the process of adapting a message from one language to another, while maintaining its intent, style, tone and context. By viewing language through a lens of transcreation—versus basic translation—marketers can be sure their audiences can read a message and understand the meaning behind it. Humor remains humorous and professional messages remain professional.

“If you’re a marketer, you don’t want to lose the relevance or immediacy of something just by going with a translation where people will understand the words but not the feeling,” Bishop says. She offers sports metaphors as an example of a language device that can easily become lost in a direct translation: They’re prevalent in the English language, but a culture that doesn’t play baseball, for instance, won’t understand the reference in the context of your message.

In translating content, marketers should also give thought to the target audience’s dialect nuances. “If you’re [writing] something that’s very slang-heavy—where you’re trying to reach out to young people or a particular subsection of the community—you’re going to want to understand the way they talk among themselves and make sure you’re connecting with that,” Bishop says.

A direct translation of a marketing campaign from one language to another isn’t enough; brands must listen and speak authentically to their consumers if they want them to engage with the brand’s message.

Consider Cultural Context

Marketers must identify and understand their audience to create relevant content for multilingual campaigns. After all, not every person who speaks a given language comes from the same cultural background. Marketers are often mistaken in believing that people who speak the same language think the same way, says Kelly Hewett, a professor of marketing at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. “There are English speakers in South Africa, [in] the U.K.,” she says. “All these people have very different cultures, so the ability to immerse yourself in a culture is critical.”

Hewett leads a study abroad program for her marketing students that requires them to speak to locals in international markets and immerse themselves in different environments to observe the ways people consume. The goal is for students to gain the tools needed to understand what life is like for the people of a culture beyond the language they speak.

Understand Acculturation

In targeting a multilingual audience within a domestic market, Hewett also encourages marketers to consider acculturation, which refers to how a person has adapted to the dominant culture in which they’re living. She says this can be one factor in how the audience receives and understands messages.

“Let’s take children of immigrants,” Hewett says. “The parents might be less acculturated than the children who were born in the United States, raised in their households speaking two languages, but probably consider themselves more American than their parents. If they are the target audience, the marketer must figure out how to use the language and the culture that is more consistent with the market where they were born. If the parent is the target, that’s a whole different story.”

Invest in Connecting Authentically

Connecting with multilingual audiences in a meaningful way might require brands to invest in resources and tools to support their efforts. Bishop encourages brands looking to launch a multilingual campaign to do so with a growth mindset and a willingness to listen to their consumers. “If you really want to connect with [a multilingual audience], you have to trust in them and build a relationship,” Bishop says. “You must spend the time and the money to do that. When companies just put up a Google-translated version of their website, it’s as if they’re telling customers, ‘We care about you and we want your business, but not enough to really invest.’”

Getting a multilingual campaign right might take time, and marketers must be prepared to seek feedback, adapt their processes as new insights become available and be open to employing new strategies. “It’s important to educate our clients and it sometimes must be through error,” Bishop says. “They go out and they don’t do it right the first time, and that’s when they understand the value of spending time and money, talking to experts and using the approaches they would in English within those other languages.”

Seek Smart Partnerships

For brands that are working with agency partners to create multilingual marketing campaigns, Bishop suggests starting the process early. This way, organizations can take enough time to find a group that understands and supports their goals. Brands should provide translation agencies with as much context as possible and be prepared to answer questions, such as tone and style of messaging and if they are targeting a specific regional dialect in their language.

“The more background information you can share with an agency,” Bishop says, “the more likely it is that you’ll get it right the first time.”

Katie Powers is editorial content intern at the American Marketing Association.