Lost in Translation

Localizing a corporate Web site can be a tricky, time-consuming affair. This may explain why few companies have attempted it.

It’s every CFO’s nightmare: an expensive global marketing push that’s doomed before it starts. And it’s a lesson that executives at Panasonic (www.panasonic.com), the consumer products division of Japanese conglomerate Matsushita Electric, learned the hard way.

In 1996, Panasonic licensed the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker to serve as a user guide on the company’s new Japanese-language Web site. After devising a huge marketing campaign to trumpet the site — one focused on the famous bird — Panasonic’s management scheduled a big rollout. But just a week before the launch of the marketing blitz, an American staffer alerted his Japanese colleagues that the advertising slogan might need a bit of revising for English-speaking markets. The slogan? “Touch Woody — The Internet Pecker.”

Hardly a mortal blow to a company the size of Panasonic. Still, it’s exactly the kind of cultural ignorance that can cost companies customers. There seems to be a lot of that in cyberspace these days. Linguists report that just 6 percent of the planet’s inhabitants speak English as a first language. But that number doesn’t seem to matter much to most Web-site operators. According to eMarketer, at the end of 1999, 96 percent of all ecommerce sites were written in English.

For managers who have assumed their Anglophone Web sites would deliver global riches, the news is not good. According to Forrester Research, eyeball time is doubled on sites localized for language and culture. Japanese businessmen, for example, are three times more likely to conduct an online transaction when addressed in Japanese. Indeed, consultancy Global Reach reports that for every $2 million a US site generates from domestic sales, another $1 million is lost when the Web site is not easily understood by foreigners.

The virtual reality is that the days of English as the default language of cyberspace are numbered. By 2003, the majority of Web content will be in a language other than English — mainly, Chinese. To maximize global revenues — and, thus, grow earnings — ecommerce companies must address target markets in the local language and with localized content. Says Forrester’s Eric Schmitt: “When offered in multiple languages, customer- service features like product data sheets and FAQs provide differentiation, build brand loyalty, and cut support costs.”

Lip Service

Tailoring products for different markets is not exactly new. The IT industry grew up translating software programs, training manuals, and the like. “When I started in this business,” recalls Philippe De-Sainte-Maresville, a worldwide localization manager for Hewlett-Packard (www.hp.com), in Grenoble, France, “computer keyboards didn’t even support the special characters used in the French language.”

Still, De-Sainte-Maresville concedes that localization jobs of the past pale in comparison to the localization demands brought by the Web. He says that before the World Wide Web, global projects tended to have set time frames, and needed few updates. In contrast, online localization will always be a work in progress. One thing, he says, doesn’t change. “Localization should be part of the product generation process – - not an afterthought.”

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