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International Business: The wrong marketing picture can be a thousand words lost in translation

Patrons and entertainers wait for the IKEA grand opening in Draper, Utah, May 23, 2007.
Patrons and entertainers wait for the IKEA grand opening in Draper, Utah, May 23, 2007.
Tom Smart, Deseret News

Starbucks recently released its new logo, which features a green image of its well-known siren. Noticeably absent from the image is any text mentioning the words Starbucks or coffee. International business experts praised this move as a way to eliminate the need for logo translation.

In this case, a single, almost universally understood image might be sufficient to promote the coffee chain’s brand without any words. If McDonald's can promote its brand with a single letter, why not do the same with an image alone?

The language services industry often refers to standardization like this as internationalization. Internationalization is preparation that preemptively reduces or eliminates the time and cost required to adapt, or localize, a product to various international markets. Wise use of images instead of text can be an efficient way to internationalize products and marketing collateral, but not all images will represent a one-size-fits-all solution.

The Swedish antacid Samarin – similar to Alka-Seltzer in the United States – was reportedly once advertised in Arabic newspapers using only a series of three images and the product name. Presumably, the image-only ads were an attempt to limit costs associated with translation, as Samarin assumed the three images would not need adaptation.

The images basically told the following story: in the first image, a man looks as if he is ill; in the second, he drinks a glass of Samarin; and, in the third, he appears happy and well. The message – Samarin helps you feel better – seems rather straightforward, right?

Unfortunately, the ad did not account for the fact that Arabic speakers read from right to left, thus perceiving that a happy man becomes ill after consuming the product. Similar right-to-left blunders have reportedly been spotted elsewhere, including on Middle Eastern billboards.

Redoing blundered images can be costly not only when advertising dollars are wasted, but also when recalls are necessary.

For instance, Microsoft lost millions of dollars when the Indian government banned the Windows 95 operating system because a crucial map image was not properly adapted. When dealing with image-only advertisements, companies may not initially think to work with an expert in cultural marketing or localization. However, doing so can prevent costly blunders and may also improve revenue by making marketing more targeted.

As an example, Swedish furniture retailer IKEA is well known for using appropriately localized images on its international websites. Compare, for example, the soft style of furniture products featured in images on IKEA’s U.S. home page to the sleeker and simpler look of product images on its Japanese home page. Compare a few more of the retail giant’s nearly 40 country sites and you will notice other differences in not only furniture style and color but also model ethnicity. The images are excellently adapted to the preferences of buyers in each specific market to improve customers’ buying experience and, in the end, increase sales.

As with any international endeavor, the vendors chosen for the image localization, design and production must do it well. Microsoft received a lot of negative press in 2009 after a contractor’s amateurish Photoshop skills resulted in a poorly localized website image. The original image on the U.S. website was not an excellent choice even for the U.S. market, considering it included a Macbook (a product of Microsoft’s competitor Apple), but worse yet, the consultant superimposed a Caucasian head on a black man’s body when repurposing the image for its Polish website, leading to accusations of racism. Website visitors quickly spotted the change because the hand of the original African-American model remained in the altered version.

Was Microsoft’s intention racist? It almost certainly was not. As Microsoft stated in its apology, “We are a multi-racial company, and there isn’t a chance any of us are racist.” Unfortunately, an error committed by an inexperienced individual created negative publicity.

Imagine a similar scenario where image localization is intended to appeal to a more diverse population, such as when the City of Toronto superimposed a black man’s head on the body of a Latino model to reflect the city’s ethnic mix. The city was not trying to be racist; it was simply trying to choose images that the target audience would perceive as more “local.” However, in both this situation and Microsoft’s mishap, art departments could have produced better-localized photos that would not have set off such a firestorm of accusations.

Some images are universally understood without localization for every market, but others will benefit from cultural adaptation. When adaptation is the right option, quality is key. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a bad picture is quite a mouthful to get lost in translation.

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at BYU. E-mail: . Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten..