Avoiding the export culture clash

Tackling the intricacies of a foreign business culture shouldn’t be a barrier to export.

When it comes to navigating export markets, UK companies enjoy significant advantages. British products, expertise and business culture are all held in high regard overseas. But as emerging markets open up, would-be exporters face a more complex world, not to mention a significant fear factor: will my product be well received overseas?
Experienced exporters stress the importance of market research as a starting point. Jon Coleman, Chairman of the British Exporters Association (BExA), believes that assessing whether your product, your marketing material, even your product name will work well in other territories is the cornerstone of export due diligence. “Your product may not have a name that travels well,” he says. “It might translate as something that will be not complimentary or something that may even be amusing in your target market.”
Multinationals have grappled with this, and the cautionary tales are well known. To its cost, Chevrolet overlooked the fact that Nova means ‘doesn’t go’ in Spanish. When Coca-Cola exported to China in the late 1920s, the words ‘Coca-Cola’, when translated into Chinese characters, varied between ‘bite the wax tadpole’ and ‘female horse fastened with wax’.

“The reality is that unless you have a product that is completely generic, most markets will have need some level of product or marketing modification...” Jon Coleman, BExA

Colours too can have differing connotations from one part of the world to another, an issue with implications for product design, packaging, marketing material and website design. In western countries, red is often associated with warning signs or danger, while in China it connotes good luck and celebration. In Japan white is associated with death while bridal websites favour plenty of red.
Re-engineering products
All markets have key cultural differences and expectations, even if they share the same language. Mark Johnston, Managing Director of veterinary information service Vetstream, explains how his veterinary information service was initially rejected by the American market, forcing him to make certain adaptations. “We translated all our content into American English and commissioned recognised North American experts to write new content relating to diseases, techniques and drugs that were relevant for veterinarians in North America,” he says. “We also peer-reviewed existing content so that it was applicable and phrased in ways that North American users would appreciate and understand.”
This rewrite project took two years overall, but enabled the company to tap a potential market ten times greater than that of the UK. “We are now reaping the benefits of making that significant investment,” says Mark.
Not all products will require rewrites on this scale, but many need adapting to target markets. “The reality is that unless you have a product that is completely generic, most markets will have need some level of product or marketing modification,” says BExA’s Jon Coleman. This may be as simple as checking that your product name isn’t already in use within your target market.
Lesley Batchelor, Director General of International Trade at the Institute of Export, recommends going beyond a cursory internet search and suggests options such the international trademark search service offered by the UK’s Intellectual Property Office (IPO). For a fee, the IPO will tell you if your product name is already taken, which could save re-launch costs and other headaches.
A company’s online presence is critical and Lesley says website translation is an issue that does not often get due attention. “If your website is translated into local languages you are four times as likely to sell in those markets,” she says. “But companies don’t always tackle this task well.”

"To its cost, Chevrolet overlooked the fact that Nova means ‘doesn’t go’ in Spanish." 

Online offerings

Dan Rajkumar, Managing Director of Web Translations, says businesses need to consider all elements of their website offering. “User experience is the true currency of the internet,” he says. Depending on where in the world you are targeting your website, material may need to reflect a culture that is masculine in tone or one with a more collective tenor. This attention to detail must also extend to pricing and payment mechanisms. “Pricing in the local currency and accommodating local payment gateways are very important areas to cover,” says Dan.
Those businesses that do successfully attract interest via a well-translated and localised website may then fall down when it comes to following up. Good customer care must include speaking to overseas customers over the phone or sending them emails with appropriate messages that reach the right people.
And, of course, there is no substitute for visiting key markets. Talking to experienced exporters, perhaps at the local Chamber of Commerce, to learn how long it takes to establish working relationships with prospective customers, is another tried and tested route.
Where to go for help
Santander Trade Portal
An online tool that allows you to market information, identify new business opportunities, optimise customs procedures, and much more.
Breakthrough International
A pillar of the Breakthrough programme that invites owners of fast-growth businesses to attend trade missions to key overseas markets where they can conduct research first-hand.
Intellectual Property Office
The Intellectual Property Office is part of the Department for Business Innovation and Skills. As well as information on design, patent and trademark protection, it offers a paid-for trademark search service.
British Chambers of Commerce
The BCC’s network of chambers is famed for its export support, particularly when it comes to forging connections in new markets. Businesses can use the BCC’s International Directory or get in touch with a local chamber for assistance.
Institute of Export
A professional membership body offering qualifications and training in international trade.
British Exporters Association
BExA has banks, insurers and specialist advisers within its membership, as well as experienced exporters able to share their experiences.
UK Trade & Investment
Contact an international trade adviser at the UKTI’s network of regional branches for advice on market access, plus initiatives including support for SMEs attending trade shows. UKTI also offers paid-for services such country-specific market analysis.

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John Carroll - Helping businesses achieve International success. Head of Product Management & International Business, Santander UK