How to ensure your brand doesn’t get lost in translation

Launching a franchise in a new country is always going to be a challenge but ensuring the marketing is spot on will make it a little bit easier

How to ensure your brand doesn't get lost in translation

By the time Jay Z’s Black Album saw the light of day in 2003, the king of hip hop required no introduction but he still kicked off the tenth song of the LP with the line: “Please allow me to reintroduce myself.” And while the worlds of rap and franchising may seem very different, franchisors can learn from the artist when they draw up marketing plans for a new country. After all, it is about reacquainting customers new and old with the brand.

However, considering that franchisors already have 99 problems to deal with when venturing into a new country, it’s understandable if they aren’t initially making marketing a top priority. “It’s a humongous task,” says Philip Ciniglio, CEO of Bartercard, the barter-trading exchange franchise. “Just finding the right master franchisee could take up to a year.” And even after that, franchisors still have to ensure their franchise adheres to local regulations, can afford the expansion and has done due diligence in a slew of other areas.

Nevertheless, all that effort could be for naught if the company fails to attract customers in the new market. “You only have one chance to make a first impression,” says Katie Thompson, digital account manager at Agency51, the digital marketing agency. “If the strategy isn’t right potential customers won’t engage with the brand. And once a company has revealed it’s lacking in knowledge about the country it’s trying to target, it will be harder to rebuild its reputation.”

And while franchisors may be tempted to attempt a new marketing strategy in the new country, it’s safer to avoid reinventing the wheel. “Trying out a new marketing style is quite a big challenge because you don’t know if it’s going to be successful,” says Barney Byfield, managing director at Davpack, the online packaging company. To avoid turning a poorly planned campaign into a marketing failure, franchisors are recommended to not change too much about a winning recipe when they launch in a new country. “Look at your core competencies and where you’ve been successful in your marketing so far,” says Byfield. “For instance, if you’re really successful at digital marketing then adapt your approach to the new market rather than coming up with a completely new approach.”

One way to recreate the success a franchise has previously enjoyed is to enable franchisees in a new country to use tried and tested marketing material. One easy way to do that is to give them access to the material through an online portal. “Then they can simply download all the marketing material – like photographs, logos and colours – and translate it for the new market,” says Ciniglio.

But giving franchisees access to the material that they need is only the first step; the second is to recognise that translating your message accurately into a new language is easier said than done. “Don’t just put it through Google Translate,” says Ciniglio. “It’s very important that it’s done professionally.” That was a lesson KFC, the fast-food franchise, learned when it first set up shop in China in 1987. The problem wasn’t that the company’s long-running slogan “finger lickin’ good” wasn’t effective – after all, it had been successfully deployed to boost sales since the 1950s. It was just that it was accidentally translated to suggest that customers should eat their own fingers. And while unintentional encouragement of self-cannibalism may not be something that happens every day, it highlights how important it is that a franchise’s message doesn’t get lost in translation.

But linguistic boo-boos aren’t the only pitfalls franchisors should worry about. From religious dietary taboos to getting the right tone of voice, there’s a multitude of cultural considerations franchises should bear in mind before venturing into a new market. “If there are any products in their range that could offend particular cultures they shouldn’t be marketed,” says Thompson.But it’s not just the products themselves that can strike the wrong chord with potential customers: it’s also cultural expectations around how things should be presented. That was something Byfield learned when Davpack was launched in Sweden in January this year. “The English style is to focus a lot on the price and to use a lot of bright colours whereas the Swedes are much more subtle,” says Byfield. “So we had to make it slightly different from in the UK.” In other words: make sure your marketing efforts translate well both linguistically and culturally.

However, that doesn’t mean franchisors should give franchisees carte blanche to market the business any way they want. “You can be flexible when you go into different countries as long as the marketing still carries the essence of your brand,” says Ciniglio. “What we don’t want is for people to get the wrong idea about what we do.” In the few cases where master franchisees haven’t understood that protecting the brand comes first, Bartercard has been forced to put its foot down. “We’ve had to remove people who got carried away with their marketing,” says Ciniglio.

Thankfully, franchisors can avoid making embarrassing translational mistakes by including marketing in their franchisee training programmes. “Make sure you’re on the same page,” says Ciniglio. While franchisors train their new franchisees on how to successfully run the business, they should also ensure new members of their network fully comprehend what the company is all about. That means going over the manual and the franchise’s services in detail. “Understanding the meaning of a sentence is really important so that they can better translate it to suit their culture,” says Ciniglio.

Another strategy that can help a franchise sidestep linguistic and cultural faux pas is working with marketing experts on the ground. “Rather than having a UK agency trying to translate the content without knowing if it will work, try to find a local agency,” says Byfield. “That’s a good idea because local agencies have local knowledge and already have clients in the market.” In order to avoid any KFC-like translation errors, franchisors should look for agencies that have a team of translators. Finally, franchises are advised to look for firms that use similar strategies as agencies they’ve already worked with as it will help ensure that they deliver the message the right way. “Never just outsource your marketing to the first agency you come across because the risk is that they won’t understand your business the way you do,” says Byfield.

Following all this advice, franchisors entering a new market should easily be able to overcome any hurdles standing in their way. Sure it may be risky but to quote Jay Z: “I’m not afraid of dying, I’m afraid of not trying.”

Eric Johansson
Eric Johansson