Localization Strategy: The Ultimate Guide

Introducing your product or service to a new market is exciting. Presenting it in a foreign country... now that can be scary. It's an opportunity to expand your brand, potentially increasing your revenue and recognition. But if you're not careful, it can lead to a tarnished reputation. One too many brands learned this hard way—some you may have heard of (like KFC and Mercedes Benz).

So we strongly recommend creating a solid localization strategy. Not sure where to start? Continue reading.

What is a localization strategy?

A localization strategy consists of redesigning an organization's branding and product or service to connect with a particular market. It's much more than translating content into another language—it often requires adjusting color schemes, imagery, taglines, and pricing based on the culture and customs of the target country.

It also encompasses everything from the marketing channels used to the topics covered on a company blog. What matters to one group may not resonate with folks in another country. For example, your marketing strategy may switch from Facebook ads to engaging with users in an online community.

Here’s an overview of the essential elements to consider when localizing:

  • Website design and layout
  • Text translation for your web and print copy
  • Branding colors, taglines, logos, and messaging
  • Marketing channels used online and offline
  • Product design/service offerings
  • Mobile app design, layout, and translation
  • Content formats (video, audio, blogs, slides, infographics, etc.)

The top priority of a localization strategy is to assimilate your brand with a foreign customer base without losing your core messaging. So the strategy must focus on each country’s and region's cultural nuances and buyer behaviors.

Why is a localization strategy so important for your business?

The goal of a localization strategy is to create a localized experience that relates to the buyers in the target country.

The keyword here is "localize," which makes your business feel familiar (like shopping at any other company in the area).

When done effectively, localization can help your brand:

  • Gain a competitive edge by beating your competitors to the punch (if they’re not already there), or winning over new markets with a better customer experience.
  • Ensure customer satisfaction by learning and addressing their unique needs.
  • Build brand loyalty by catering to them and evolving your offering using customer surveys and feedback.
  • Increase revenue potential using a buyer-centric approach to maintain a happy customer base.

A localization strategy isn't something you rush into—it requires careful consideration. One mishap is all it takes to ruin your plans to globalize. For instance, some companies focus too much on translation and not enough on transcreation. The former takes sentences and converts them into another language word-for-word.

The problem: the outcome may not mean the same in the new language as it did in the original language. For example, the "Got Milk" campaign launched for the Latino community in Los Angeles, California. The mistake: the translation of "Got Milk?" in Spanish is "Tienes Leche," which means "Are you lactating?"

Not only did it miss the mark—it was offensive and awkward. Hence the importance of transcreation:

"It takes the original intent of a “source” piece of copy and creates new messaging that will be better received by the target audience because it’s adapted to their cultural norms and experiences. Essentially, we reimagine what a certain key message will be for audiences in another country or culture." — Smartcat

With this approach, your linguists reword campaigns so it's relevant while maintaining the same emotion and brand voice. Linguists understand the culture of your audience and prevent costly mishaps.

Like choosing phrases that make little sense or are offensive. Direct translations can go awry when you use slang and metaphors that don't translate well into other languages.

A linguist will catch these before reaching your audience. Finding trusted linguists specializing in multiple countries is problematic. So some turn to online translation platforms that deliver mediocre results.

This is a dilemma one of our customers had before entrusting us to manage the translation process:

“Localizing a few new strings into 20 languages took more project management than translation time,” says Natalya Pavlikova, localization engineer at Xsolla. For this reason, Xsolla started looking for an alternative solution."

But we didn't just translate for them; our experts ensured the translations were on point with the brand and its intended audience.

“We already have a tight-knit team of translators on Smartcat who make sure that our voice stays consistent throughout,” says Natalya. “And for the most critical content, we can add more linguists as proofreaders for the same content.”

Localization vs. translation: What's the difference?

When you think of localization, what's the first thing that comes to mind? If you're like most, then you imagine a large translation project. And while this is a part of the localization process, it's not the sole focus. There are more steps involved, and the approach is strategic.

Translation involves translating words exactly as shown (like in the Got Milk reference). Localization takes into consideration the culture and the impact of the translation. Will it mean the same thing? And, more importantly, will it evoke the same emotion and connection as it does in the original country?

It's more of a thought-out process that requires careful planning, in-depth customer research, and proper implementation to pull off. When done right, localization produces brand messaging that resonates with the target country as it would if it were developed there initially.

If it feels like a strewn-together translation vs. a carefully thought-out adaptation to that specific culture—it may rub locals the wrong way.

Globalization vs. internationalization vs. localization: Are they the same?

Other terms associated with localization are globalization and internationalization. While there are similarities between them, they have unique characteristics that distinguish each. Think of the four: globalization, internationalization, localization, and translation (GILT) as steps in going international.

Here's a quick breakdown.

What is globalization?

Globalization focuses on two things: expanding across international borders and following procedures and policies.

McDonald's is a prime example of a brand using globalization. It has nearly 40,000 restaurants operating in over 120 countries, and it's now recognized and liked in these communities.

Source

The act of opening your store in foreign countries is globalization. It requires learning international laws and regulations to maintain your position in their markets legally. It's the same whether you're a physical business or an e-commerce brand like Amazon.

If you're selling goods online to countries outside your own, then you're subject to their taxation and rules and regulations.

Globalization opens the door for localization, which is critical to connecting with the country's citizens. McDonald's localized by creating country-specific menus.

Source

What is localization?

In this process, localization adapts your brand and its products or services to give it a feel that connects with locals. This includes updating your website, apps, and print materials with the translated text and new designs and layouts.

Some changes are minor, such as the date and address formats, while others are major, such as your logo colors and design.

Airbnb is an excellent example of localization. It's available in roughly 200 countries with a website translated into over 60 languages.

Their site also includes user-generated content, such as reviews, local guides, and videos with translated voiceovers. The brand is exceptional at maintaining the customer experience while adhering to cultural, legal, and regional expectations.

For instance, booking an Airbnb in France from America will feel the same as when you arrive at your destination. Plus, there's content for the locals there. The goal: to accommodate the natives and travelers alike. Nicely done!

What is internationalization?

The internationalization process is the step before delving into localization. It's the preparation of the design and development of your website, apps, service offerings, and products for the targeted markets. Once the design and development are complete, localization teams begin translating text, changing colors, and ensuring elements (e.g., currency) are present and match the layout of the design.

One example of internationalization is Starbucks. They removed the text from their logo to be used anywhere without needing translation. Yet, the logo is still recognizable across borders and cultures—mission accomplished!

Source

Kentucky Fried Chicken rebranded in 1991 to KFC (to avoid paying Kentucky a state licensing fee). And, as it turns out, it made it easier for people across the world to remember and pronounce.

When should you create your localization strategy?

There are several ways to determine when to build a localization strategy:

  • when your sales in your current country are going well,
  • if there's an opportunity to have the same success in other countries,
  • when folks across seas are asking for your product or service,
  • in case your competitors are venturing into new regions.

You can either join your competitors or wait to see how it pans out before crossing international borders.

Once you're ready to create a global localization strategy, use the following steps.

10 steps to build and improve localization strategy

Looking to build from scratch or improve a localization strategy for your business? Then follow these steps to ensure it's complete and effective.

1. Research your target market

Don't go into a new territory blind—research the culture, language, laws, and customs. Or better yet, reach out to potential customers in the region (with the help of a linguist). Find out what features, products, or services they need to resolve niche issues.

Learn the region's nuances and how it impacts your product or service. For example, is there a unique feature or add-on service that would appeal to their particular needs? Maybe there's no high-speed internet in a region, and you must down-grade your app to perform better on slower networks.

Find out who influences their purchasing decisions (it may not be creators on TikTok or YouTube). Depending on the audience, they may trust formal publications over social media influencers.

And don't forget to analyze your competitors.* Look at their products/services, marketing campaigns, and advertising methods. See what's working for them (and what's not). Look for gaps in their strategy and product offering. When speaking to locals, get their take on competitors: why do they choose the competition? Or why don't they?

*There're tools like Semrush  .Trends that can ease your research by providing an instant market overview and competitive digital insights based on the target market traffic.

Then use this information to create a better customer experience.

Here are other items to include on your research to-do list:

  • Learn the country's holidays (for planning promotions, sales cycles, and content)
  • Identify barriers to entry, regulations, and supply chain (maybe you have to find a new supplier that's more affordable or offers faster shipping to the region)
  • Determine whether your product conforms culturally. Or goes against customs and conventions.
  • Find out if your message aligns with locals' expectations or needs tweaking (go beyond translation with transcreation)
  • Pinpoint the changes necessary to make your product fit into the market (features, pricing, design, wording) while keeping your brand's core message

Keep in mind the best research involves the locals—get them involved in surveys, study groups, and interviews to gather first-party data.

2. Anticipate localization needs during design and development

The initial setup of your website, app, and product should contemplate future changes should you venture into international markets. This removes the need to do a complete overhaul of your design.

For example, in an app, you need sufficient space for text. English letters require less space than Mandarin characters. If you don't plan for this in advance, you'll have to design a new template, creating an inconsistent experience.

So as you're planning your localization strategy, don't forget to sweat the nuances. Otherwise, you'll lose time and money on a redesign.

Create mockups and prototypes to test different variations for languages. This way, you can spot sizing issues in advance.

3. Participate in the community

Engaging with the local community gives you insights you can't find anywhere else. It puts you in the frontline to hear stories, complaints, aspirations, and desires directly from your audience.

You can join both physical and online communities. Find groups on forums and social media networks to monitor. Be sure to engage—ask questions and gather insights to develop a successful localization strategy.

Check around the familiar social networks like Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter. Ask locals which sites they frequently use to hang out with family and friends.

"Digital design service Canva worked with consultants to grow their company’s reach across 190 countries and 100 languages. This worked because Canva partnered with locals (and knowledgeable people) to make their services useable for anyone." — Matthew Leong, Leftleads

We can attest to this after having a podcast interview with Rachel Carruthers, Head of Localization and Internationalization at Canva. They took a hyperlocalization approach that involved community research to transcreate Instagram ads in different countries:

  • Mexico: Focused on messaging that communicated the speed and ease of creating new content.
  • Spain: Focused on messaging that communicated Canva's value as an all-in-one-place tool
  • US: Focused on the Canva brand name, as we already have strong brand recognition.

They also updated the images to reflect the current season in each of these regions: winter in Brazil and summer in Spain.

The takeaway from their experience was to invest upfront in learning the community and finding the answer to:

  • How to better understand the community's cultural context
  • How to meet the community where they are
  • How hyperlocalization can benefit your product

4. Revisit your branding

Your brand is what separates you from the pack. It's also the way you connect with your audience. So it makes sense to rethink your branding for each foreign market you target.

The colors, fonts, messaging, and tone may not work everywhere you go. So it's critical to make necessary changes. For instance, red is popular among American restaurants. Makes sense here because it's show-stopping and garners attention from hungry patrons.

But in certain cultures, like Celtic, Hebrew, and South African, red represents death, sin, sacrifice, and mourning. Not something you want to associate your food joint with.

Then there are symbols to consider:

"Snakes, for example, are a symbol of deception in certain cultures and a symbol of metamorphosis in others. As a result, the initial step should be to do consumer research. When you decide on a market to enter, research the opportunities for your organization within that area. One of the most effective methods to do this is to have a member of your team work at the place you're considering. This will enable your organization to comprehend the locals' values and demands." — Lily WIll, Founder & CEO of Niawigs

5. Document your brand and create a localization kit

When you revamp your brand for a particular region, document it. Localization is a team effort, so everyone needs access to localized brand documents. This ensures brand consistency and prevents mishaps along the way.

So what should be inside your localization kit? Here's an overview:

  • Brand style guide with your localized brand voice, colors, fonts, tagline, graphics, logos, customer profiles/personas, and campaign goals
  • Information about the locals (culture, holidays, favorite channels, etc.)
  • Words, gestures, or phrases to avoid
  • Who will use the localization kit and how (project managers, translators, marketers, salespeople, etc.)
  • Product information, including localized descriptions, photos, pricing, manuals, guides, etc.

This isn't an all-conclusive list since localization kits vary from business-to-business. Once you develop your localization kit, share it with your teams.

6. Build a localization team

Speaking of teams, you'll need one to execute your localization strategy. Who do you bring aboard? Here's a list of the professionals to hire:

  • Localization manager: Leader to build the localization strategy and oversee the localization program to meet goals.
  • Project manager: Someone to oversee the teams to ensure proper implementation of the localization strategy.
  • Linguists: Professionals that not only know a language but understand the cultures behind them (and can perform customer research and interviews).
  • Translators: Experts in translating text into one or more languages.
  • Marketers: Strategists, writers, promoters to build visibility and recognition of your brand.
  • QA manager: Someone to check the quality of the translations, marketing collateral, and product design.
  • Designers: User experience experts to create the redesign of your digital and physical products (website or tangible product line).
  • Developers: Programmers to build the design of your app, website, or software, so it meets the standards of the localized design.
  • Business attorneys: Legal guidance to ensure the localization process remains with the regulations of the country you're expanding to.

Team building can happen in-house or mix in external freelancers and agencies. A customer came to us after struggling to build a solid team.

“Ensuring proper quality of translations has always been one of the major challenges we have faced when developing Flo. Before we started to use the Smartcat Freelancer Marketplace, we lacked a constant pool of freelance translators/vendors for us to draw upon. We handled all our localization needs via Upwork, which meant no certainty that the same person who worked with us one day would do so the next.” — Alexander Markevitch, localization team lead at Flo Health Inc.

7. Identify content, platforms, products, and channels to localize

Where should you prioritize your localization efforts? Depends on your business and your target audience. There's no one-size-fits-all approach to localization, so adjust your focus based on your research findings.

For example, you may not need to redesign your app much, but the channels you'll target are unique. Maybe the locals don't use social networks or websites you're used to communicating through. So explore popular channels within that region, like:

  • Social media sites (e.g., Telegram, Qzone, and Viber),
  • Forums (e.g., Reddit, Github, and Kaskus),
  • Pay-per-click ads (search engines and social media),
  • Industry or niche websites (health, technology, finance, etc.),
  • Online communities (Slack, Discord, etc.),
  • Influencer marketing (Imgur, Instagram, YouTube),
  • Print content and ads (magazines, newspapers),
  • Audio (radio, podcasts),
  • Visual (billboards, TV commercials).

If you’re targeting online communities, you’ll need to learn community rules and tweak your marketing efforts. For example, Reddit will delete posts if it’s promotional. So brands focus on creating helpful content with occasional links to a product or service.

The same goes for your products and content. See whether they need to change features or formats to accommodate locals. For example, using video over blog posts. Or focusing on SEO instead of social media ads.

The restaurant industry adapts by adhering to local cultural preferences and religious beliefs. For example, switching to turkey bacon in an Islamic community.

As for prioritization, focus on the assets closest to revenue generation. For example, localizing your website and blog is ideal if that's the primary channel used by your audience (vs. a mobile app).

8. Think beyond translation

Translation is a critical step in the localization process. But it's just that—a step. Companies mistakingly focus most of their efforts on translating text when they should also consider design, messaging, and product adjustments.

Here are several ways businesses can adapt their business to a foreign market:

  • Adding a new service to accommodate a market’s needs,
  • Changing the design of a product, so it’s possible (or easier) to use/understand,
  • Changing your messaging to highlight value instead of price (if the market, cares for quality more).

Then to make sure your adaptations work, you need to run tests.

9. Test everything before you launch

You've covered all the subtleties of your brand and product design. How confident are you that everything will run smoothly? Don't wait until launch day to find out. Test your apps, websites, ads, and other marketing materials to ensure it works.

Your teams should consistently test layouts on different devices. But don't stop there—enlist the help of locals. Include them in experiments to offer a fresh pair of eyes and feedback on things you overlooked.

One of our customers undergoes linguistic testing that consists of manually checking app screenshots to find issues like:

  • Text being too long for the screen element size (some involve legal implications if the text left out includes disclaimers or financial info).
  • Text left untranslated, either by the translator making a mistake or because it was hard-coded instead of externalized as a string.
  • Text translated in the wrong context, e.g., when the text on a button — e.g., "Download" — is grammatically an imperative instead of an infinitive.

As you can see, testing your localization is time-consuming. Determine whether your team will do this along the way or wait until the end to perform testing in one go. Each come with pros and cons.

For example, parallel testing:

  • Finds and resolves problems right away
  • Slows down progress, since teams have to cater to problems before moving on
  • Keeps your team agile to make changes on the fly

Then testing after development:

  • Keeps team focused on the project, not fixes
  • Delays project if there are a lot of changes to make
  • Wastes time and money spent on doing major overhauls of design and translations

Want to learn more? Here's a guide and checklist we created to execute localization testing.

10. Follow local laws and regulations

Meeting the demands of your future customers is one part of the battle. The other is following local laws and regulations. Each government has unique requirements, some you may not be accustomed to.

For instance, Asia is known for its strict laws on its citizens and the companies that venture there. In North Korea, women aren't allowed to wear pants. So if you're a clothing store, adjusting the women's items to dresses and skirts is ideal.

But aside from cultural norms, you also have to worry about business legalities, like:

  1. Establishing an entity across seas (if you're selling in another country, you're liable to pay taxes and file registration documents).
  2. Hiring contractors and employees (countries like the UK have similar laws about categorizing workers as employees).
  3. Using stock options to pay employees (check local tax laws to see if there's a large tax bill attached).
  4. Registering intellectual property (register your trademarks, patents, and design rights in each market you operate in to protect them).
  5. Localizing terms of service and sales contracts (translate all legal documents to the local language to avoid complaints, leading to unfavorable terms).
  6. Acquiring a foreign business (get help from a local expert to review contracts and localize.
  7. Paying taxes (get tax structuring advice to minimize tax obligations).
  8. Protecting data (data protection laws are strict in the EU, so be sure to follow local rules for receipt, use, and retention and always get consent).
  9. Renting or buying real estate (tenant obligations vary globally, so understand your responsibilities and rights while operating in the space and once you depart).
  10. Entering disputes (understand local dispute resolution procedures and arbitration options to avoid litigation).
"Legal statements or privacy policies demand special attention to localize effectively. My tip: establish a methodical process of assessing your colorful content sections to understand which sections need technical restatements because it's not a simple matter of translation." — Richard Lubicky, Founder of RealPeopleSearch

So you'll need legal experts to ensure translations are accurate and within your best interest.

Leverage AI technology to build an efficient localization strategy

Localizing a product and brand is only as great as your planning and execution. And without the right technology, the steps described above will take longer to complete since it relies solely on manual methods. For some, this means carrying out dozens of steps, taking the project longer to reach milestones.

This happened with one of Smartcat customers before they adopted the platform.

"Before using Smartcat tools, our translation process consisted of 38 steps — Smartcat helped us reduce this to six! It simplified our process for onboarding new freelancers, and our overall efficiency got a huge boost due to the platform’s Vendor Management features, the Marketplace, and the open API." — Alexander Markevitch, localization team lead at Flo Health Inc.

We hasten localization processes by streamlining critical areas of the strategy. This includes:

So if you're relying on outsourcing and manual procedures, then it's time to upgrade your processes!