a real risk in B2B technology marketing

Sometimes the best, most creative tech marketing ideas fall flat when crossing borders. The most common culprit? Ethnocentrism. It’s only natural. We all have a tendency to consider our culture to be the norm and are often surprised when our values, customs and standards are not commonplace elsewhere. What is more B2B technology marketing has always lent itself well to one-size-fits-all campaigns across borders and cultures. After all, it is widely accepted that the overall needs and challenges of an IT manager are pretty much the same from London to Düsseldorf, and from Rome to Warsaw. This is partly true, but don’t get too comfortable in this mindset.

Here’s an example* why: A few years ago, one of our clients asked their ad agency to develop a campaign for a new software that would streamline and improve internal processes, lower operating costs, provide fantastic ROI and increase customer satisfaction.

Eyes glazed over at the Soho-based agency as account handlers read the brief, but they put their best planners on the case and a couple of weeks later, the client’s marketing director was presented with a campaign plan and value proposition. The concept proposed did not focus on the all-too-familiar cost, ROI or efficiency benefits, but rather on what they meant to the core IT manager audience: less stress in the workplace, less overtime, more time and energy for their personal lives. The planners reckoned that this get-your-life-back approach would strike the right chord with IT professionals who, by definition, are constantly fighting fire.

The winning concept told the story of an IT manager who, freed from endless stress and constant late nights at the office, emerges blinking into the, by now unaccustomed, sunlight and decides to get his golf clubs out of the shed. It would be delivered in an attention-grabbing, shed-shaped envelope (looking suspiciously like the HP shed from the “Garage” campaign some of you will remember) with a door-shaped flap that would reveal a dusty bag of golf clubs.

The client liked the idea and there was a real buzz at the agency as the campaign took shape and the DM concept was developed across digital banners, eDMs and landing pages (social media were not so big in B2B at the time). Once everything was signed off, it was sent to us for transcreation into German and French. That’s when reality hit — IT managers in France and Germany don’t really play golf, we told them. Couldn’t they put a BBQ in the shed for these markets, or a bike or anything but golf clubs?

Unfortunately, it was too late to change anything. Reorganising a photo shoot was out of the question due to time and financial constraints. Moreover nobody at the agency was overly excited about the idea of picking up the phone to tell the client there was a slight “cultural” hiccup that they had not anticipated. So they asked us to transcreate the campaign as it was. Our country-based translators called us to tell us exactly what we’d already told the agency. We sighed and asked them to translate it anyway.

The feedback from the local marketing teams was predictably lukewarm. France even refused to run the campaign altogether, saying it looked “too Anglo-Saxon” (a euphemism for “those b****y rosbifs” in French) and would do more harm than good. The EMEA Marketing Director considered having the campaign re-designed for these markets, but decided against it in the end, again due to the lack of time and money.

From what we heard afterwards, the response rates were much lower in France and Germany than they were in the UK.

What can we learn from this story? That we should stick to bland, boring concepts and messages that go completely unnoticed in the daily flood of marketing content? Clearly the answer is ‘no’.

This cross-cultural marketing blunder could easily have been avoided if local marketing teams or the Language Service Provider (LSP), i.e. us, had been involved from the concept stage onwards. The golf issue would have been spotted early enough for viable alternatives to be suggested in time for the photo shoot, giving the campaign the all-important local flavour for a marginal additional cost, while leveraging the power of the original concept.

Let’s face it: we as a whole may not be hard core ethnocentrics, but we’ve all committed the sin of ethnocentrism in one way or another. Always have and always will. The important thing here is to recognise this and involve people with local knowledge early enough in the planning and creative process. It could be your local sales and marketing people or, if you’d rather avoid the two-many-cooks syndrome, it could be your Language Service Provider (LSP) who could give you a consolidated feedback across all your target countries.

In some marketing organisations, this will require a complete change of attitude towards translation in general, and their relationship with LSPs in particular. They will need to consider their LSP as a strategic partner in the creative and execution processes, not just a commodity supplier at the end of the campaign value chain.

The process doesn’t have to be onerous. Often our clients just send us a quick e-mail with the concepts attached. We run it past our market-based experts and most of the time the concepts get the thumbs up within a few hours. But it does give our clients the peace of mind that their new campaign will work across all their target markets and not fall at the final hurdle.

For more related posts, read Translation is not a commodity and our quick buyer’s guide for technology marketers.

* Although this example is fictional, it is adapted from a true story