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International copywriting: how to make it work for you

Copywriting on an international scale is challenging for marketers the world over. After all, how do you remain on-brand while being sensitive to the cultural and linguistic nuances of each target market? The quick answer is with research, a solid strategy and, of course, the right people.

If you already have these in place, then you won’t need to read any further. But just in case you don’t, we’ve put together a few pointers to help make international copywriting work for you.

Do your research

To achieve maximum return on investment, your copy needs to blend into the target culture and jump off the page at the same time. It needs to feel as if it were written by and for natives, without being bland.

This is where research comes in. Research identifies which market to target and how best to target it. It reveals the motivations behind purchasing decisions, tells you what moves and inspires your customers, and helps you craft copy that strikes a chord. Start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What problem are you solving for customers in the target culture?
  • How does your product solve their problem?
  • Do they already have a solution?
  • How does your product compare to existing solutions?
  • Is there demand for your product in the target culture?
  • What are the core values of your ideal customers?Status, achievement, family, health, loyalty, efficiency…?
  • What brands do they currently buy?
  • Why do they buy these brands?

If you have the resources to use an international market research agency, they’ll be best positioned to reach your target market. If you don’t have the resources, you can begin with your own research:

  1. Search for existing studies: you may be surprised by the amount of market intelligence already available free on the web.
  2. Visit competitor websites: if they’re not available in your native tongue, use a free translation tool like Google Translate. This should be enough to understand what your competitors are about.
  3. Read customer reviews: I love this one because reviews tell you almost everything you need to know about your customers, their pain points, what they like about existing products and what they dislike. Not only that, but your copywriters can take inspiration from product reviews (called review mining). Look up customer reviews on sites like Amazon, Trustpilot, TripAdvisor and Facebook. If they’re not written in your language, use Google Translate.

Let’s take a closer look at how to mine reviews in a foreign language.

  • Let’s imagine you want to market a new shaver on the French market. Google Translate the word “razor” (le rasoir).
  • Go to the Amazon.fr website and search for the word you found, in this example “le rasoir”.
Amazon review mining copywriting
  • Find the product that best matches yours and scroll down to the reviews section. Even if you don’t understand the language, it should match the layout of your version of the site.
  • Copy and paste the reviews into Google Translate and select your language combinations to translate the text.
  • Copy and paste your reviews into a format that makes it easy to interpret and analyse the data, like Excel.
Amazon review mining

Whatever you do, make sure your research is qualitative. For copywriting purposes, qualitative research gives you greater insight into your customers’ pain points, experiences and values.

A great example of in-depth research is this report on the Chinese luxury market, put together by Ogilvy. It’s bursting with case studies, data and analyses on changing trends and values among the younger Chinese generation. No doubt, this single piece of research would have taken significant resources to put together, but when you’re tapping into a market that’s projected to be worth $160 billion by 2025, it pays to be thorough. After all, assumption is the mother of all muck-ups.

Research for copywriting

Once you’ve done your research, you should be able to create your buyer personas (semi-fictional representations of your ideal customer).

Transcreate or use a native copywriter (don’t translate!)

When I was a student in France (many years ago now), one of my favourite subjects was language and culture. One of the things that stuck out was the simplicity with which our lecturer defined the word culture. He referred to it simply as the way we do things around here.

Failing to adapt your message to the values of a specific culture is like telling your target audience you don’t care how they do things in their part of the world. Cultural and linguistic insensitivity is the path to multilingual copywriting failure.

With this in mind, translation is a purely linguistic process, while transcreation (or creative translation) adapts the tone and cultural references to make the text read as if it were originally written for your target market. International copywriting takes this further insofar as it is based on a brief, not a source text.

Whether you transcreate or write from scratch, a native copywriter or transcreator immersed in the target culture will be able to use your research to communicate effectively with your audience, shaping the text to ensure you remain on-brand and culturally relevant.

Brief the copywriter

In whatever language you plan on communicating, a clear brief will make sure the copywriter crafts copy that captures your target audience’s attention. If they don’t speak your language, don’t worry, a good international copywriting agency will communicate your brief clearly on your behalf. When writing the brief, remember to include the following:

  • Practical details (company name, contact person, date, first-draft deadline, final deadline).
  • A concise description of the context of the project.
  • What format the copy will appear in (website, banner, flyer, postcard, brochure etc.).
  • What you want the copy to achieve (e.g. inspire people to read your content, buy your product etc.).
  • Introduce your personas/audience (e.g. age, location, language, buyer behaviour, interests, values etc.).
  • Introduce the content (key messages, calls to action (CTA), word counts and limits, whether or not it will accompany images, what the single most important point is etc.)
  • Your tone of voice (warm and friendly, professional, humorous – the copywriter will need to adapt this to their native market, so more in-depth discussions may be appropriate).

Localise

If you’re attempting to reach a market where the native language is the same as or similar to yours (e.g. American English v British English), don’t be tempted to cut corners. Localise your copy to ensure you speak directly to your specific target audience, using words and a tone of voice that resonate.

It is relatively inexpensive to do, and by communicating in their specific language variant or dialect, you’re telling them that you care about their particular needs, that you’re trustworthy and that you pay attention to detail. Anything less risks alienating your audience and damaging your brand reputation.

Take this example from McDonalds:

International copywriting

The Australian version, where consumers have developed a more refined palate.

Transcreation services

The Pakistan version, where the emphasis is placed on exclusive Happy Meal toys, which are popular in the region.

Avoid consistency

When putting an international copywriting strategy together, be bold. It’s okay to have a distinct tone of voice for each target market (look again at the example of McDonald’s websites above).  Attempting to create an international, one-size-fits all tone of voice is likely to result in a bland brand.

More and more B2C business in the UK, for example, are adopting a familiar, playful tone of voice, however, in other countries like Germany, the tone tends to be more formal. Bear in mind that trends change, so stay on top of your research and keep your copy fresh.

Finally, check the advertising standards in your target market

As mentioned, assumption is the mother of all muck-ups,  so make sure you don’t land yourself in trouble and waste your efforts by producing illegal, dishonest or offensive copy. Some countries have stricter advertising regulations that others, but most European countries, for example, use self-regulatory systems. Your native copywriter or transcreator should flag up any problems that the copy may cause, but if you’re in any doubt, let us know and we can point you in the right direction.

As a translation and copywriting agency, here at Keytext we’re used to dealing with the challenges of international copywriting. If you need to write copy in another language, have a translation project or simply need advice, feel free to contact us.

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