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4 CEOs Who “Get” Localization


9 min read

Written by


Argos Multilingual

Published on

12 Nov 2021

We’ve all seen the cautionary tales of companies that fell flat on their faces publicly after failing to properly localize when it was time to expand internationally. But what about the ones that actually do it right? Upon closer inspection, the companies that hit the nail on the head often share one common trait – a CEO who understands why localization matters and gives their team the resources to get the job done.

The many infamous blunders (collected here by our friends at Phrase) prove that entering a new market correctly is a crucial part of protecting a company’s image – and that the key to entering new markets correctly is localization.

Localization is about adapting your content physically, linguistically, and culturally to a specific market. Think about the popular board game of Monopoly. Boardwalk, Park Place, and Fifth Avenue are perfectly acceptable street names for a version being sold in the United States. But a version for sale in France should feature the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, the Rue de Rivoli, and the Avenue Victor Hugo. Localization is not about literal translation, but about making people feel included by helping them understand the meaning of what you’re showing them.

Brands have an exciting opportunity to explore new strategies and techniques when they adapt content to new languages and regions. Here are four examples of how brands and their CEOs across multiple verticals localized their experience to strike a chord with new audiences.

Tony Lowings, KFC

Back in 1987, American fast-food giant KFC gambled big and made a bold move, entering the burgeoning new Chinese market. But, as nearly everyone has heard by now, they decided to save money on translation and localization, which meant that their classic slogan “Finger lickin’ good” translated into Chinese as “eat your fingers off.” Most people, however, haven’t heard the rest of the story.

After this debacle, management at KFC picked themselves up off the ground, dusted themselves off, and tried a new approach. Research and anecdotal evidence both showed that Chinese palettes severely underappreciated American cuisine, which had never been common in mainland China.

When the first franchised stores were opened, Chinese KFC managers decided NOT to implement the same business model that worked in America. For example, American investors had long focused on pushing more products to meet their profit margins. There was no room for innovation, because food quality needed to remain consistent across all stores.

In Chinese culture, however, food quality takes precedence over all else. Rather than offer the same menu, managers introduced innovative menu items that better suited Chinese tastes, with the blessing of top management (including CEO Tony Lowings). As a result, KFC has witnessed immense success, with many locals still considering it their favorite fast food place three decades after it entered the market.

Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos, Netflix

Video streaming service Netflix debuted in 1997 with a now-quaint business model of mailing physical DVDs to consumers. Fast forward to 2017, and Netflix was operating in more than 190 countries, with more than half of its 130 million subscribers outside the United States. That’s an expansion that’s even more impressive when you consider that the streaming service was only available in 50 countries in 2015.

All this international growth happened despite the fact that the company found itself in a uniquely challenging position. Most brands can localize their content to better serve targeted customer groups, but Netflix has to secure content deals region by region and sometimes country by country, facing a wildly diverse set of national regulatory restrictions that limit what content can be made available in local markets.

Netflix needed an entire localization program to curate local-language programming and content for customers in each country. This included strategically rolling out localized subtitles, providing user interfaces in local languages, and dubbing existing programs.

A massive program like this can’t succeed without CEO buy-in, and Netflix co-CEOs Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos have proven to be open to new ideas and ready to spend whatever it takes to attract new global audiences.

Stewart Butterfield, Slack

Slack is an app that aims to make work communication faster, easier, and more fun. Founded in 2013, it has grown to include a large user base of 500,000 companies and 8 million daily active users, with more than half of those users outside of the United States. Slack’s top five markets outside of North America are the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, France, and India.

While countries like India and the UK use English as their primary business language, Japan, Germany, and France use regional languages. Slack decided to localize their app for multiple regions to increase their user base and build a better connection with users. This was more of a challenge than you might expect – Slack is known for their irreverent remarks, anecdotes, and references to familiar regional idioms.

Slack founder and CEO Stewart Butterfield correctly saw cultural references as a way to help the company build trust with its global users. Slack’s welcome screen for its Japanese clients features a popular saying that means, “You’ve done a good job; look at the scenery to rest your eyes.” The image in French says “We are here to help” as opposed to the English “You look nice today.” Users all over the world have responded to this localization strategy positively, with many asking for the app to be localized to their home countries as well.

Ivan Menezes, Johnnie Walker

If you like a stiff drink (or even if you don’t) you’ve probably seen some version of iconic whisky brand Johnnie Walker’s ubiquitous “Keep Walking” campaign. Originally launched in 1999, the slogan has served as a framework that speaks to the desire of all people to move forward in life, even if it’s just one step at a time – a message that can translate to all manner of cultures, languages, and regions if it’s localized properly.

The whiskey brand’s CEO, Ivan Menezes, saw the potential in the slogan but also knew that it could be ripe for misinterpretation. The company worked with marketing agency BBH to take the campaign and localize it across 120 countries. The overall “Keep Walking” theme guided each ad, but the agency created over 100 versions with localized quotes and phrases to make each ad more relevant to its target market. The work paid off – global sales spiked by more than 94% and worldwide brand awareness skyrocketed as well.

A Chilli approach

Our colleagues at Chillistore have a long track record of creating relevant and content that breaks down linguistic and cultural barriers and makes it easier to access new markets. They’ll help you build your online presence in new markets, and they’ll do it at competitive prices and with the highest possible quality, thanks to their spicy twist on the core values of linguistic quality assurance. To learn more, get in touch with them or contact us here

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