The Coca-Cola Company is the leading beverage maker in China’s $69 billion soft drink market, but the story might have been quite different if it weren’t for some smart and localized brand management at the very beginning of its foray into the country. Protecting the company’s valuable trademark was a high priority when Coca-Cola began to expand outside the United States. When the company turned its attention to China, it became clear that the trademark also needed to be transliterated. That’s easier said than done. Finding the nearest phonetic equivalent to “Coca-Cola” meant sifting through some 40,000 characters to locate a separate Chinese character for each of the four syllables—an enormous task in the pre-computer days of the 1920s.
Today Coca-Cola products are sold in all but two countries: Cuba and North Korea. This worldwide success was only possible because the company realized the importance of taking the reins of its own international branding through proactive translation and localization.
No matter what size your business is, you can learn a thing or two from this story and Coca-Cola’s success. For one thing, don’t underestimate the localization process. But it goes well beyond that. Here are five tips to help you take your business global.
1) Do your homework. One thing we have today that Coca-Cola didn’t in the 1920s is instant access to an Internet of information, where you can find tons of support for marketing products or services overseas. Check out the Small Business Administration’s online guidelines for doing business abroad. Then search the Census Bureau’s website for U.S. Exports of Goods by End-Use Category and Commodity, Services by Major Category, and the Top U.S. Trading Partners as of December 2015. These resources will lead you to plenty more so you can determine your potential in international markets.
2) Know your target markets. Once you’ve assessed your potential and zeroed in on some markets, you need to understand your target market so you can tailor your business to it. For example, will the names of your products and services be accepted or do you need to have them translated or transliterated? A good place to start, especially for small and medium-sized business, is your local or national translators association. Professional translators are much more than linguistic experts; they also possess an intimate understanding of the business culture in the target markets in which they specialize. Most associations have searchable directories online, where you can find a professional who translates from English into the language of your target market. By taking a proactive approach to your branding before entering the market, you’ll avoid any potential mishaps.
3) Localize. Once you’ve taken a hard look at your brand, it’s time to localize your entire storefront. And like your brand, this means finding professionals to translate and localize your website and marketing materials. A small team of translation professionals can likely help if your company is relatively small and only targeting a few markets, but you’ll want to consider contracting a language company if you’re looking at more than three or four. The professionals who helped you understand your target market are a great place to start. Avoid the temptation to add one of those plug-ins that automatically translate web pages and blog posts, because you’re asking for trouble. Hiring professionals to handle the translation and localization will ensure that your foreign-language website really reaches and resonates with consumers.
4) Know what you say and sign. Speaking your customers’ language will likely go beyond your website and marketing materials and include communication suppliers and/or local agents. Even if you’ve hired a local representative who both speaks English and understands the current laws for doing business, it’s still wise to have all important documents translated into English by a legal translation professional for you and your attorney to review. Taking a hard look at contracts before you sign them will save time, money and aggravation in the long run. Moreover, contracting a professional translator and communicating with customers in their own language does wonders for relations and retention, not to mention helping to avoid any cultural misunderstandings. And the expense shouldn’t be prohibitive. If you really want to up your international sales potential, hire an interpreter and follow up some of those emails with a personal phone call to your target customers!
5) Get paid. No matter how well you manage your brand, localization and communication, you’ll need to ensure that you get paid and that getting paid doesn’t cost you too much. International transactions can be an expensive enterprise, so proper preparation should be part of your expansion plan. Do you need to adjust your prices in the respective markets to account for international wire transfer or online payment portal fees? PayPal, for example, charges a standard 2.9% fee plus a cross-border fee of 1%, both of which are deducted in the foreign currency payment amount before the exchange rate is applied and entered into your PayPal account in U.S. dollars. For large shipments or amounts, it may be best to request that your customer open up a Letter of Credit in your favor for an amount in U.S. dollars. Be sure to check with your bank or other international financial consultant to make sure you choose the payment option(s) best for you.
Your business may not have the means to expand into foreign markets like one of the world’s leading beverage makers, but you do have the means to emulate how seriously Coca-Cola took the process. Before your first foray into the global market, consider the cultural and linguistic needs of your potential customers You’ll be miles ahead of the competition if you take the time to get closer to them and speak their language—and your company’s products, services or slogan won’t become the next Facebook meme to mock clueless foreigners. Do your homework and you’ll be well on your way to going global and achieving international success.