Product internationalization: an essential guide

What does internationalization mean?

While “internationalization” sounds like an easy word to grasp, the meaning depends on the context.

In the context of business operations, internationalization refers to activities that support the launch expansion of a company on international markets. Depending on business maturity and your competitive scenario, internationalization could translate into import/export strategies, international partnerships and distribution agreements, buy-ins and more.

The concept of internationalization is also associated with the reduction of business-related operational costs. However, when companies go international for cost reduction purposes alone, delocalization is the most appropriate word.

Product internationalization, on the other hand, refers to the generalization of a product which was originally developed for a specific locale, with an aim to enhance the appeal and distribution of the product on international markets.

Note: in this context “product” is a general term that encompasses both products and services (e.g. an app, user manual, website interface) as well as communication campaigns, marketing materials, brands etcetera.

Internationalization and localization

Product internationalization is often confused with localization. While both processes are key to optimising your chances of a successful product launch on international markets, they are radically different.

To clarify, localization is about the linguistic and cultural adaptation of a product to an international locale. Localization aims at a resulting product that feels as “created for a specific target market”.

In this context, internationalization forms the basis for easier localization. But that isn’t always the case.

At times, products are engineered and developed so that they’re naturally “ready” for localization. In other cases, localized products are generalised to cater for distribution on foreign markets with no further adjustments or adaptations.

The benefits of product internationalization

Companies enter new markets to increase their revenue and sales volumes. But success heavily depends on the appeal of their products as perceived by the new audience.

Here’s the thing: different target audiences process stimuli differently.

Each culture has unique ways of expressing emotions as well as a unique set of values. This is also reflected in unique ways of using factual and symbolic language. This isn’t just about words: it’s the result of history, heritage, traditions and community.

To be successful, a product needs to be:

  • fit for use (e.g. the interface of your app)
  • presented in a compelling way.

This means that all product-related materials and content (marketing campaigns, packaging etcetera) should be designed to be relevant for your target. Product internationalization results in a neutral canvas that forms the basis for further localization or specification.

Product internationalization: key considerations

At its essence, a product is a combination of feature and characteristics. To contextualise, let’s consider the features of an e-commerce website:

  • Textual (or text-related) elements (length, figures, measures etcetera)
  • Functionalities (such as forms and shopping carts)
  • Visual elements (symbols, icons, images, colours, …)
  • Content (headlines, body copy, tone of voice, style and more)

Successful product internationalization embraces all features and elements of a products.
Let’s dig a bit deeper into it.


1. Textual elements and functionalities

Each language features a peculiar structure and adopts different rules and conventions.
This has an impact on:

  • the position of verbs, subjects and other elements within a sentence
  • the length of an average sentence/paragraph
  • the use of punctuation and sentence breaks
  • the notation of numbers, date/time, measures
  • and much more.

Internationalizing a product so that e.g. your web interface can be easily adapted to different local requirements is hard work. Common internationalization tasks include:

  • Checking length limitations for micro-copy elements (CTAs, menu items etc). As an example, the shortest Italian equivalent of “buy now” (acquista ora) would never fit within an 8-character limit. Stringent character limitations would call for “creative” (AKA non-standard) abbreviations that can significantly affect the usability and readability of your website across different languages.
  • Checking the layout and format of date/time/currency elements. This also includes assessing the legibility of your chosen fonts, and whether such fonts support special characters and symbols.
  • Making sure that your fill-in forms template takes into account language-specific differences in the structure of the sentence.
  • Considering the inclusion of locale-specific icons, menu items and other functional elements, based on local requirements and trends.


2. Visual elements

The visual identity of your brand and product can affect the reactions of your audience.

As an example, the symbolic meaning of colours and symbols varies across cultures. The use of images is also influenced by cultural nuances. Advertising concepts that are based on sexual innuendo are acceptable in some countries but would be considered as inappropriate and disrespectful in other contexts.

To succeed on foreign markets, your company needs to be aware of market conditions as well as systems of community values, social norms and other culture-specific peculiarities.


3. Content

Paying attention to the linguistic and cultural relevance of a product is key to developing targeted communications and compelling messages.

All communications naturally tap on nuances and references that are associated with our cultural and social context. Just think of placeholder names such as Tom, Dick and Harry. In Russian, the magic trio translates as “Ivanov, Petrov Sidorov”; in Italian, you would need to look for “Tizio, Caio e Sempronio” instead.

Similarly, the use of symbolic language and communication styles are culture-bound. Polite forms in Italian are more fluid and “easy-going” compared to the strict hierarchical forms of Japanese, which reflect the hierarchy-oriented mindset of the population.

Many companies are dubious about internationalization and localization. They fear that their message and preferred tone of voice might get lost somewhere in between – which is understandable, considering the current emphasis on branding and marketing-related epic fails and horrible translations.

When done right, product internationalization mitigates the risk of missteps or inadequate localization – and the resulting loss of credibility.

Devising the best localization approach for your content is a specialised task. In most cases, the localization formula includes a mix of marketing translation and transcreation, to recreate the emotional content and impact of your original message. In other cases, copywriting – AKA ad-hoc content origination – comes into play alongside transcreation.

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