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Lost in translation?

The international nature of agriculture presents opportunities for agtech start-ups, but marketing strategies must be tailored to culture as well as territory.

No industry is more international than agriculture. If you’re thinking about an international marketing and communications strategy, it’s wise to be aware of the pitfalls.

Read on (or jump ahead to the take-home points!)

Let’s think about it. How many countries DON’T practise agriculture? Perhaps the Vatican, and Monaco is questionable, but that’s about it. Even the city state of Singapore has its own farms (in fact, it claims 0.5% of its GDP from agriculture) while Greenland, almost entirely within the Arctic Circle, is increasing its potato and sheep production thanks to improving technology (and climate change).

Agriculture’s ubiquity presents a great opportunity for agtech start-ups and established agricultural players alike. Expanding beyond home borders and doing business internationally means growing a customer base faster and market shares in multiple territories. For companies (and product viability) reliant on data sharing, the increase in subscriber numbers – and the multiplication of data streams – offers yet further value.

While there’s nothing new about multinational agriculture – companies in crop protection, fertiliser and machinery are perhaps the best examples – many of those have become international only after a long process of acquisitions and mergers. Absorbing local teams has made it easier for them to develop a presence outside their home countries. Those teams bring knowledge and understanding of local audiences, providing the grasp of markets, trends and culture that a successful marketing and communications strategy demands.

But for the new entrant or start-up, recruiting local teams usually isn’t an option – and so it’s common that the same, universal campaign gets rolled out.

Sometimes, you’ll get away with it. Granted, your campaign might not have the same buzz as it has back home, but if you’re lucky it will remain inoffensive and not generate unintended consequences.

On the other hand, marketing textbooks are littered with examples where companies’ failure to carry out ‘due diligence’ before entering a new market has caused embarrassment, ridicule and even offence, not to mention the cost of reconfiguring campaigns and starting all over again.

Companies who should have known better

  • Entering China’s market proved a stumbling block for both Pepsi and KFC. Pepsi mis-translated its slogan ‘Come alive!’ as ‘Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead’, while KFC’s classic ‘Finger-lickin’ good’ became ‘Eat your fingers off’. Both had to go back to the drawing board.

  • A 1999 campaign for HSBC, taking the bank into new markets worldwide, translated its established strapline ‘Assume nothing’ as ‘Do nothing’. The bank ended up having to spend around $10m on a new campaign – albeit one that produced the much more memorable slogan of ‘The world’s private bank’.

  • Even European markets present problems. Ford failed miserably when launching a new car into the Belgian market, by translating ‘Every car has a high quality body’ as ‘Every car has a high quality corpse’.

  • Think carefully about your product or even your company name. Car companies seem particularly in the firing line here, with Mitsubishi (its Pajero means ‘jerk’ in Spanish) and American Motors (‘Matador’ was associated with courage in the domestic market, but means simply ‘killer’ in Spanish…)

Even when translation isn’t to blame, cultural differences can still trip up the unwary:

  • US baby food manufacturer Gerber used their traditional baby logo to adorn their products for their launch in Africa. What they didn’t know was that in Africa, the label of a product invariably shows what’s inside the box or tin.

  • Having recruited Richard Gere as the face of FIAT, the Italian manufacturer clearly expected to get maximum worldwide value from their investment. But FIAT hadn’t done its homework: thanks to his support of the Dalai Lama, Mr Gere is loathed in China. FIAT’s showing of the ad provoked outrage amongst Chinese audiences, with internet forums filled with promises of eternal boycott of all FIAT products.

  • We steered an Agro Mavens client away from a possible faux pas in Vietnam. For a new campaign targeting rice farmers, they proposed branded pocket knives as a giveaway. Our due diligence on local culture revealed the potential for a new textbook marketing fail: in Asian cultures, giving someone a knife is the surest suggestion that you feel ill-will towards them. We advised the client accordingly!

So – whether you’re launching a new product, or entering new markets, your international marketing plan needs not only to speak the right language, but also to reflect and respect the local culture.

Take-home points

If you’re considering a new market, here’s a few tips to help you get the most from your international marketing investment:
  • Hire a professional translator. Don’t be tempted to save money by taking up the offer of having your CFO’s Spanish-speaking sister do ‘a quick run-through’ of your ad text. The same goes for your agent in Brazil, and your distributor in South Africa – unless they’re professional translators, use them only as a check. At Agro Mavens we work with a roster of translators, selecting the most appropriate for each client project.

  • Google is not your friend. Google Translate (GT) is increasingly accurate. It’s fine for ‘getting the gist’ of a text. But machine translation is no match for a human translator. What’s more, remember that Google stores every sentence you type (or paste) into GT. Are you happy with Google having access to potentially sensitive data?

  • Make sure the translation is contextualised. If your text uses the wrong terminology, your target audience thinks you don’t understand their market. So use the right lingo. The same goes for dialects (see below). We check finished translations for accuracy and context with an agricultural journalist from the relevant country, picked from our international network.

  • Don’t just translate, transcreate. This is particularly important for markets like China (see examples above), where word-for-word translations can’t always convey the same intent, image or ‘feel’. Agro Mavens retained a specialist agency with native Chinese staff when launching a client’s product into China; this ensured we got the meaning and understanding correct for the target audience.

  • Are your key messages relevant? Where in the world a farmer farms will change his or her outlook and priorities. What resonates with a British crop farmer may not grab the attention of a US grower. Market research can prove a wise investment if you’re to ensure your brand’s messages hit home.

  • Two countries separated by a common language. English-speaking companies can avoid translation perils by focusing on other English-speaking markets. Just don’t forget that even between Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, farmers use, and are familiar with, different terms. To have confidence in your product, they’ll need to feel comfortable with your use of language.

  • Cultural context is everything. Each country has its own social mores, vox pop references, slang, metaphors, idioms and advertising styles. Straight translations often fail. For example, in the UK we’d say that the same marketing strategy in different markets ‘doesn’t cut the mustard’, but in France they’d be scratching their heads unless we said ‘Il n’est pas à la hauteur’ instead. And certain references don’t translate successfully: while preparing for a German product launch, we discovered that a crop protection client’s product strapline – citing its pest-killing efficiency – would be poorly received.

  • Consider a style guide. Where entry into a new market represents a significant investment, a style guide is invaluable. By crystallising your brand’s ‘voice’ and ‘tone’ for that territory, it allows translators, transcreators, content generators and local teams to follow a consistent set of guidelines. Ensure it includes country-specific terminology, including acronyms and abbreviations, and keywords relevant to your brand or product.

Was this helpful?

There’s only so much insight we can give, while seeking to keep a blog post short! We’ve mentioned some of our international marketing experiences from our own clients – we’ve completed projects on six continents – but if you’re interested in seeing how we might help you expand your borders, while avoiding the pitfalls, just get in touch. We’ll be very happy to get talking!



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April, 2020 - It's an understatement to say we're living through unprecedented times. Covid-19 has created an unsettling and worrying situation for individuals, communities, business and the whole of society. The number of people affected by Covid-19, whether through infection or losing loved ones, continues to increase daily and our sympathies lie with you all. At Agro Mavens, we remain open for business; indeed, many of our clients have specifically asked us to 'Keep Calm and Carry on Working...for Us'. As a small business, we're incredibly grateful for your support at this time. We also remain open for new business; please call or email us to discuss your needs.