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Global e-commerce business-to-consumer sales are set to soar past the 1 trillion euro ($1.25trillion) mark by 2013, according to a recent report.

The IMRG concluded “the future of ecommerce is global”, with strong growth in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.

For businesses of all sizes, the internet is a relatively low-risk, and cost-effective way to test the waters in new markets. But it’s all too easy to go wrong, by failing to take cultural differences into account.

Here are a few common mistakes to avoid...

1. Not localising marketing

Marketing campaigns, like humour, don’t always translate well. A recent Millward Brown study found that adverts that were very popular in one country rarely achieved the same success abroad – in fact only one in ten did equally well.

They concluded that cross-border campaigns weren’t always the most cost-effective option.

Big brands often succeed by being “globally local”. For example McDonald’s adapts both its menus and marketing campaigns for each country, and recently opened an entirely vegetarian restaurant in India.

2. Getting the name wrong

We’ve all heard entertaining examples of brand names that got lost in translation. While Microsoft’s Vista might conjure up images of open windows and scenic views in some countries, the name means “chicken” or “frumpy woman” in Latvian.

This can be particularly tricky to get right in some languages. A study by Auckland University of Technology and  Hong Kong Baptist University found that only 22% of major foreign brands had optimised their names for the Chinese market.

One good example was Nike which became Nai Ke. Not only does it have a similar sound, but the characters mean “Endurance Conquer”.

3. Not translating SEO

Search engine optimisation (SEO) is an essential tool to get seen around the world, but keywords don’t always translate across languages and cultures.

It’s best to research them separately, rather than assume the same ones will automatically work. For example a direct Italian translation of “low cost flights” – “voli a basso prezzo” would get relatively poor results compared to the more commonly used “voli low cost”.

4. Not integrating campaigns

The most effective online marketing uses a combination of SEO, pay-per-click (PPC), social media, and other methods to communicate a message.

However, many global brands fail to take this integrated approach in foreign languages, for example by not having separate social media accounts for each market. One solution is to hire locally-based social media managers, who can keep up with the latest trends and boost customer engagement.

5. Not being mobile friendly

In many countries, mobile phones account for a large proportion of internet connections. Smartphones are expected to outsell PCs this year, with more of the world getting connected on the move.

This is also a growing trend in emerging markets, where mobile internet connections far outnumber fixed broadband connections.

Surprisingly, many global companies still don’t have fully optimised sites for the small screen. Finding a site doesn’t display properly or takes too long to load is a fast way to lose customers. 

6. Ignoring cultural differences

From tone of voice to payment preferences, there are numerous differences between cultures. It pays to get the details right at the start – for example researching whether people feel comfortable paying by credit card on the internet, or would rather use checks or Paypal accounts.

The design of websites, including level of formality, and use of color, images and videos tends  to vary in different parts of the world. In many countries, such as China, people are much more likely to trust accompany that appears “local”, with an in-country domain name.

7. Neglecting non-English speakers closer to home

Spanish speakers make up an increasing minority of the United States, while the UK has large minorities speaking Polish and other languages.

While most speak English as a second language, shoppers overwhelmingly prefer to browse and make purchases using their mother tongue. American businesses that fail to reach out to Spanish speakers are losing a large number of potential customers.

Christian Arno

Published 14 September, 2012 by Christian Arno

Christian Arno is Founder and Managing Director of Lingo24 and a contributor to Econsultancy. He can also be found on Twitter

23 more posts from this author

Comments (4)


Ramki from Digital Marketing Analytics

Is this for B2B or B2C?

about 4 years ago


Chris Reynolds, Online Marketing Engagement Manager at Adecco management & consulting

All valid points, the flip-side of this can be if the brand does get too local-centric you can loose brand consistency and the benefits of being a large organisation. There's a balance that's tough to find.

If it helps International types, I do quite a bit of international SEO and built this little GUI for building Google search strings http://searchlatte.com/ to make it easier do ad-hoc checks on local SERPs (not a commercial plug, it's a freebie).

about 4 years ago



Two brands spring to mind who haven't really considered global marketing - Subway and Berroca. Whilst rednecks or lumberjacks might appeal to your average American or Canadian it doesn't work the same way in the UK.

about 4 years ago


Guy Mucklow, Senior Web Designer at PCA Predict (formerly Postcode Anywhere)

Even the some of the biggest brands are getting it wrong when trading internationally -I don’t think anyone will forget Coors’ attempt to hit the Spanish market >> http://ow.ly/dNKjV.

As you so rightly point out Christian, it’s important that any merchant attempting to establish a brand for an international audience, considers cultural values, norms, etiquette, humour and slang.

about 4 years ago

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