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5 Tips for Writing for a Global Marketplace

By: Linda Formichelli

Linda Formichelli (e-mail) is a copywriter and magazine writer based in Massachusetts.  She's written for more than 45 magazines and for such corporate clients as Bay State Gas, Pizzeria Uno, Performance Printing and AFC Cable Systems.  Linda holds a Master's degree from U.C. Berkeley.

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In his book Do's & Taboos of International Trade (Wiley, 1991), Roger Axtell reports that PepsiCo once rolled out in Taiwan the slogan "Pepsi Comes Alive." Its Chinese translation? "Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back from the Grave." Swedish company Electrolux introduced their vacuums to America with the slogan "Nothing Sucks Like an Electrolux."

In a business community where communication is instantaneous, you may find yourself in one day pressed to answer a fax from Japan, an e-mail from Germany and a letter from Brazil. Follow these four tips for international correspondence and you can avoid Electrolux and PepsiCo's costly, embarrasing mistakes.

1. Be literal.

Your foreign contacts will translate your writing word for word--and phrases we take for granted may throw your contact for a semantic loop. If you write, "We'll take a meeting," your contact may wonder what you're going to do with the meeting once you have it. And if you write, "We put together a tiger team to dialogue about empowerment"...well, they just won't know what to think. Be as literal as possible, even if you have to use more words or you feel that you sound less up-to-date. Your foreign contact is likely not current on American business jargon anyway, and will appreciate a clear, understandable style.

2. Keep it short.

The five dollar words of corporatese have no place in international correspondence (or in domestic correspondence, for that matter--see 6 Tips for Energizing Your Marketing Writing. Why confuse your contacts with "irregardless" and "agreeance" (which are not even words) when English has the perfectly servicable words "regardless" and "agreement"? Replace "utilize" with "use," "conceptualize" with "think of," "multitudinous" with "many". Along the same lines, excessive wordiness just gives your reader more to translate. "At this point in time" can be easily replaced by "yet," "end result" with "result"--and such phrases as "something along the lines of" can be omitted altogether. Search out and destroy any vague wordiness in your writing. Your contact will thank you.

3. Know your reader.

You know that you should use "Ms." when addressing women in business. You know to involve the reader by using the pronoun "you". You know to close a sales letter by asking for the sale. But when your reader is from another country, all these rules that you spent years learning may be useless. For example, Mary A. De Vries writes in her book Internationally Yours (Houghton Mifflin, 1994) that certain countries, such as Japan, don't like the Americans' "personal touch" of using the pronoun "you" in letters. They believe instead that writers should refer to their company. Not: "Would you be interested in learning more about our product?" But: "Would your company be interested in learning more about our product?"

Where can you learn more about your reader's culture? First try searching the Internet, using the name of the country as a keyword. There are also books that profile all the major countries of the world:
The Universal Almanac (Andrews & McMeel, Kansas City, updated annually)
World Travel Guide (Columbus Press Limited, London, updated annually)
The World Factbook (World Bank Publications, Washington, D.C., updated annually)
4. Quell your inner comedian.

The joke that had you rolling on the floor yesterday may not have the same effect on your foreign contact. Remember, your reader will be translating what you say word for word--and who knows what you'll end up really saying. Besides, humor is a personal thing. Whenever you're tempted to add some sarcasm, a pun, or any other type of humor to your correspondence, ask yourself, "Does this advance the purpose of my writing? Will my contact even appreciate it?"

5. Project the right image.

With graphics software getting cheaper and easier to use by the day, pictures, graphs and other images are becoming the backbone of proposals and reports. But when writing for foreign readers, you can't take it for granted that the fancy symbols and images that are so simple to churn out on your computer will mean the same thing for your readers that they do for you.

An anecdote in a recent issue of Reader's Digest described an ad campaign that failed for this very reason. According to the story, a soft drink company introduced its product in Saudi Arabia with a pictorial advertising campaign. The left panel showed a man walking under a blazing sun. His clothes were sticking to him, and his face and hair were dripping with sweat. The middle image depicted the same man drinking the company's soda. And the picture on the right showed the man looking cool and comfortable, with a big grin on his face. To us, the meaning is clear: this company's soft drink is refreshing on a hot day. But consider this--in Saudi Arabia, writing and images are read from right to left. Is it any wonder that the product intro flopped? Like most people, the Saudis didn't want to buy a drink that would make them sweaty and uncomfortable. You can avoid such mishaps by researching your reader's culture (see Tip 3, "Know Your Reader") and by being sure that all images are clearly labeled and have arrows or numbers to indicate their proper order.

Knowing your foreign market and making an effort to be clear and understandable will help you stand out in the global marketplace--and make the task of communicating across national borders easier for both you and your foreign contact.

© Copyright 1999, Linda Formichelli

Other Articles by Linda Formichelli

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