E-commerce is one of the fastest growing industries today. With more and more of us working remotely in the wake of COVID-19 and international trade becoming increasingly less cumbersome, online shopping is now a routine part of life for many of us. This can mean exciting opportunities for companies to reach across borders and begin selling to new markets – but creating those connections is not always an easy task. This is where localisation in E-commerce comes in.

As more and more companies are discovering, a keyword in this arena is localisation.

Many businesses have seen that localisation can be the difference between success and failure – and as we shall see in this blog post, a failure to localise can often have embarrassing and sometimes damaging consequences.

Amazon proves that one size doesn’t fit all

Take the Amazon case, for example. In October 2020, American e-commerce giant Amazon went down in history for one of the biggest translation blunders in living memory. Launching its website and service for the first time in Sweden, the company deployed thousands of machine-translated product descriptions only to discover that they were somewhat rough around the edges.

The new website was riddled with odd and nonsensical text, not to mention sexual expletives, offensive language and unfortunate references to unpleasant topics. One listing even appeared to be selling Russian toddlers, while some of the more mysterious terms – such as an ice mould for excrement and goose water – still have amateur linguists scratching their heads in confusion.

Tumultuous translations followed by slow growth

But for Amazon’s bottom line, the whole episode was no laughing matter. It turned the website into a bit of a joke in the country of ten million. Recent figures have even suggested that Swedes have been slow to embrace Amazon to the same extent as consumers in other European markets. There are of course myriad reasons for this, and we can’t know for sure whether the translation debacle inflicted damage on consumer confidence. But many companies took note and will be keen to avoid repeating the same mistake.

Amazon’s experience is thus an important cautionary tale for e-commerce retailers. Not just against the follies of putting too much faith in machine translation – but also against failing to consider localisation and the ultimate intelligibility of what gets published. Epically opaque mistranslations might be great for giving us all a good laugh, but they are not so great at conveying information or telling potential buyers the things they need to know.

The importance of local knowledge

Other localisation pitfalls can be less obvious. Take the case of toothpaste brand Pepsodent, for example, which launched its product in Southeast Asia with a seemingly innocuous slogan that promised whiter teeth. The only problem, however, was that in certain parts of the target market, consumers chewed betel nuts to strengthen their teeth, turning them black in the process – and establishing a completely different standard for dental cosmetics. White teeth were not desirable in the region, and so consequently, neither was Pepsodent. Talk about plunging your brand down the tubes!

A similar case concerns the Jolly Green Giant brand of canned peas from the American Green Giant Co. When launched in the Arabic-speaking world, this brand of kitchen cupboard staples was rendered as the Intimidating Green Ogre. As the vegetable company soon discovered, it turned out that the concept of the beloved and friendly old giant was not a universal phenomenon that could be easily be translated across cultures. Still, intimidating ogres is one way to make kids eat their greens.

A target-centric approach is the key to success

Although the examples above may seem very different in terms of both their causes and effects, there is actually a common solution that would have saved them all. The missing ingredient in each case was a target-centric approach; i.e. a recognition of how important it is to step into the shoes of the target reader when crafting or translating the texts they are going to read. This means not just replacing words in one language with equivalents in another, but understanding how these words will be received by the target readership and knowing when to step in and make interventions or alterations.

Or to put it another way, it means knowing that not everyone wants white teeth, Swedes don’t want to buy Russian toddlers, and not all cultures think giants are jolly.

Beyond that, localisation is also about understanding what the target readership will need and expect when browsing product pages on e-commerce websites. For example, they will want to see prices in the currency they use, and sizes in measurements they understand. They may even want descriptions to be available in a particular language or variant, and they will definitely want texts to be free from jargon and written in a style that makes sense to them.

Localisation in e-commerce can bolster confidence and minimise returns

Making the effort to localise your e-commerce pages will not only bolster the confidence that online consumers have in your brand, but it will also lead to less confusion about the end product and fewer time-consuming returns. Your customers will be able to shop safe in the knowledge that they know exactly what they are getting and you won’t have to deal with vexed customers calling up or sending in emails to complain about the misunderstanding and demand free returns for missold goods.

What’s more, localisation can also provide a suitable opportunity to enhance your texts in other ways, helping you not only to better connect with consumers online, but to reach more of them as well. For example, the localisation process can incorporate SEO optimisation, where certain key words are deployed in the text in order to make sure it is recognised and ranked by popular search engines. The combined effect of SEO optimisation and localisation thus means you will be able to draw lots of customers into a user-friendly website that speaks their language and where they can find exactly what they need – without confusing or offensive language repelling them away.

Comunica – localisation specialists since 2007

Comunica’s linguists understand that localisation is an art form. They have a deep understanding of both the source languages they work with and the target language they translate into – which is always their mother tongue.

If you would like to find out more about potential considerations, pitfalls and opportunities of localisation in e-commerce for your particular business, get in touch today for a commitment-free chat and we will be more than happy to talk you through the process. Contact us and get at personal talk with one of our Project Managers

And if you happen to know what goose water is, we’re dying to hear the answer!