Going global: preparing for international communication

So you decide to take your business global. Wonderful! You see no need to change a winning formula, so you simply translate your slogan, ads, website, brochures, etc. Let us stop you there for a second. Have you considered whether your communication translates well – literally? Expanding to new markets can be enticing, but the cost of doing so without vetting your international communication will outweigh any potential benefits.

If you are thinking about going global, you have to be willing and ready to adapt your communication. Yes, sometimes that means eliminating some things you really like.

The good news is that it can be done, so don’t be discouraged. Here are some helpful tips that will get you started:


It’s worth talking to native speakers about your (product) names. For example, when car producer Honda wanted to introduce  its new “Fitta” model in Sweden, it found out that “fitta” was an old word used in vulgar language to refer to a woman’s genitals in Swedish, Norwegian and Danish. It’s now called the Honda Jazz.

Idioms, puns & metaphors

The same applies to idioms or puns. While some languages share sayings that are similar, in many cases you risk confusing your customers when you use them. Just think of how phrases like “that costs and arm and a leg” or “speak of the devil” could be grossly misinterpreted when translated literally. Of course, a loose translation is never quite as powerful.

Oh, and that sports metaphor that works so well in your country? Make sure your target audience in another country will get it. Football, for example means something different to Europeans, Americans or Australians. And none of the different types of football mean anything in India.

Photos too

It makes sense that words can be a bit tricky. But what about images? After all, they don’t have to be translated.

Well, there are some pitfalls here as well that need to be navigated.

While a picture may say more than 1,000 words, even that can get lost in translation. In Germany, for example, pigs are a symbol of good luck. But German companies would be well advised to not use that imagery when doing business in the Middle East.

In addition, the role of women differs greatly across the world. So that beautiful model showing off some skin will not be seen the same way in all markets.

Authenticity is also an issue. For example, European hard hats look funny to Americans but a photo of people at work in the US might violate all sorts of Swiss safety and environmental regulations.

The same holds true for an ad campaign that is supposed to show diversity or tolerance. What works in Scandinavia or the Netherlands can quickly backfire in less liberal places, i.e. pretty much anywhere else in the world.


Even colors don’t mean the same thing across the world. Red is a very lucky color in China but not in Africa while orange has positive connotations in Asia but not in the Middle East.

International communication? Yes, you can.

Obviously, none of this is supposed to discourage you from expanding to other markets or to try to create an international/global communication campaign. We merely want to caution you that you should do so after careful research, which includes all communications.

A “one-size-fits-all” international communication approach is perfectly feasible. But the only way to transcend the differences in cultures is to know about those differences.

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