Three levels of translation needed for international marketing

When most marketers think of translations in relation to their international marketing efforts, they are usually only considering the translation of a set of words from one language into another. Yet, actually, translation is a much deeper concept, involving three levels of message transformation.

The first level is an intersemiotic translation, where a company’s ideas about their product, including branding and benefits, are translated into the words and images in marketing collateral (ads, websites, etc.). Note that this level of translation occurs in all marketing efforts, regardless of whether a product is slated for international sales. For example, if you are a manufacturer of cutting-edge men’s fashion, you may position your suits as being for the unique man who wants to stand apart from the crowd. Your ad message may be “You alone appreciate style”; the visuals show a man in your suit at the forefront of your ad, while other men stand in a group behind him.

The second level is an interpretive translation, where the words and images are translated by your target audience. Again, this level of translation takes place for all audiences, local or international. Using the example from above, this ad may be interpreted as intended in a country with strong individualistic traits, such as the US or Canada; the man’s sense of style makes him special and other men look on in envy. However, in a collectivist culture, such as an Asian country, it could be interpreted that the man’s suit made him an outcast and he no longer fits in with his peers.

Finally, the third level of translation is the translation of the text from one language to another. In this case, the translator is attempting to not only translate the words themselves, but convey the same type of intersemiotic translation that was meant in the first place. Again using the ad example from above, a Western translator would likely have no problem understanding the semiotic message and would adapt the translation appropriately; he or she might not do an exact translation but would instead use a culturally appropriate phrase that captured the essence of the original while appealing better to the local audience. However, an Eastern translator would have difficulty understanding the core semiotic message and, therefore, would likely perform more of a an exact word translation, even if the ultimate message is fairly incomprehensible – from an emotional level – to the collectivist audience.

As you can see, it becomes critical in international marketing to understand the relationship between these three levels of translation. It becomes even more critical to work closely with your translation company to explain the semiotic message and determine if the message itself should change in certain markets.


Millan-Varela, C. (2014), Exploring Advertising in a Global Context. The Translator, 10:2, 245-267, DOI: 10.1080/13556509.2004.10799179


Cultural dimensions and website design

A significant amount of research has uncovered that customers in different countries respond to different types of messages. Much of this research has linked the cultural dimensions developed by Hofstede (i.e. individualism, collectivism, power distance, long-term orientation) to messaging that resonates in cultures with pronounced tendencies towards particular cultural dimensions.

Calabrese, Capece, Corbo, Ghiron, and Marucchi (2012) expanded this thread of research to examine how users in different cultures respond to different website structures. They discovered there were strong correlations between cultural dimensions and the acceptance of different organizational structures. Consider the following examples:

In collectivist cultures, people place the groups (and relationships) in their lives first, both at work and at home. Therefore, the preferred website structure is one that is role oriented. For example, a site for ordering flowers would be better organized by the customer’s role (spouse, co-worker, guest) rather than by the type of event (wedding, birthday, anniversary). .

In individualist cultures, people place high importance on action. Therefore, the preferred website structure is one that is task oriented. For example, a site like Amazon that walks the customer quickly through the selection and checkout process appeals to the individualist culture best.

In low power distance cultures, there is greater informality between people, especially at work. In these cultures, a website that doesn’t use relevancy rankings works best. For example, a camera site that simply describes all the features of each model and allows the customer to develop their own ranking system for selection is preferred.

In high power distance cultures, there is much more formality between people and more rigid levels of hierarchy. In these cultures, that same camera site should include relevancy rankings, in effect telling the user what features are the most critical and what the feature hierarchy should be.

In feminine cultures, the focus is on personal relationships, such as family. In these cultures, a structure that is more relationship oriented, similar to the collectivist structure, will work best. For example, a site like the P&G’s Pamper site that focuses on the parent’s relationship with his or her child, rather than diaper benefits, will resonate in this culture.

In masculine cultures, the focus is on competitiveness and winning. In these cultures, a structure that is goal oriented works best. For example, eBay and its emphasis on “winning” an auction resonates most in masculine cultures.

In long-term orientation cultures, the focus is on stability. In these cultures, a structure based on social coherence works best. For example, an insurance website that is organized by long-term responsibilities, such as taking care of a spouse after your death or providing for your children’s education resonates the most.

In short-term orientation cultures, the focus is on the ability to change in response to your environment. In these cultures, a structure that is focused on liberty works best. For example, a bank website that is responsive to people’s lives, such as mobile apps or the ability to transfer money instantly between accounts resonates in this culture.

In uncertainty avoidance cultures, the focus is on the familiar and on clear rules. In these cultures, a structure that has a crystal-clear drill-down structure works best. For example, a site like SAP with its products, services and support, and training and education menus work best. The customer always knows exactly where he is in the website and always knows how to navigate to the next product , service, or training class.

In uncertainty tolerance cultures, the focus is tolerance for ambiguousness. In these cultures, a structure that allows customers to choose their own path through the site work best. For example, a site like Fox News that allows users to select between headline news, roundup stories, videos, streaming shows, etc. resonate best in the cultures.

From a marketer’s perspective, understanding the relevant cultural dimensions in a potential international market could help drive an appropriate website structure that will appeal to the values in that culture.


Calabrese, A., Capece, G., Corbo, M., Ghiron, N., Marucchi, M. (2012). “Cross-cultural strategies for web design”. World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology, 71, pp. 78-83.

Cultural dimensions and individual values

Over the years, Hofstede, Schwartz, and Hall have given marketers three different cultural dimension typologies to consider when developing international marketing strategies. These typologies vary in the number of dimensions identified; however, many of the same cultural dimensions can be found within each researcher’s work, albeit with different labels.

Torelli, Ozsomer, Carvalho, Keh, and Maehle (2012) took these seminal research studies and attempted to map the dimensions to personal values at the individual level. They found that all three researchers have some type of individualism / collectivism dimension. Torelli et al. identified four main high-level value quadrants for this dimension:

On the individualism side:

  • Self-enhancement – This quadrant is related to social status and prestige, and personal success through demonstrating competence.
  • Openness to change – This quadrant is related to excitement, novelty, and challenges, as well as independent thought and action (being able to choose, create, and explore).

On the collectivism side:

  • Self-transcendence – This quadrant is related to understanding, appreciating, tolerating, and protecting all people, protection of the environment, and preservation and enhancement of the welfare of people with whom one is frequent personal contact
  • Conservation – This quadrant is related to respect, commitment, and acceptance of traditional customs and ideas, restraint of actions likely to upset or harm others, and safety, harmony, and stability of relationships.

Torelli et al. then identified the individual values that fell within each of these quadrants:

Self-enhancement – Power, comprising social power, authority and wealth. And achievement, comprising success, capability, ambition, and influence on people and events.

Openness to change – Stimulation, comprising daring, a varied and challenging life, and an exciting life. And self-direction, comprising creativity, freedom, curiosity, independence, and choosing one’s own goals.

Self-transcendence – Social concerns, comprising broad-mindedness, social justice, a world at peace, equality, and wisdom. Concerns with nature, comprising beauty of nature, unity with nature, and environmental protection. And benevolence, comprising helpfulness, honesty, forgiveness, loyalty, and responsibility.

Conservation – Tradition, comprising respect for tradition, humbleness, accepting one’s lot in life, devotion, and modesty. Conformity, comprising obedience, honoring parents and elders, self-discipline, and politeness. And security, comprising national security, family security, social order, cleanliness, and reciprocation of favors.

While it should never be assumed that all members of a collectivist culture, for example, will adhere strictly to the traits and personality implied by that dimension (after all, everyone is unique, regardless of the culture they live in), the type of individual values associated with a dimension could be useful for marketers attempting to create messages that will resonate in a particular culture.


Torelli, C., Ozsomer, A., Carvalho, S. Keh, H., & Maehle, N. (2012). “Brand concepts as representations of human values: do cultural congruity and compatibility between values matter?” Journal of Marketing. 76, pp. 92-108.

What sells best internationally?

Marketers at small and mid-size companies across the globe are trying to figure out how to use their websites to sell their products internationally. Some are just looking for leads; others are trying to actually sell products through e-commerce. And most are finding varying degrees of success.

Moen, Endresen, and Gavlen (2003) examined manufacturers worldwide to determine if there were key factors that would lead to better international sales. They discovered that products and services could be grouped into two main categories: search goods and experience goods.

Search goods are products that can be evaluated by means of external information. For example, a laptop can be evaluated by feature sets, consumer press reviews, customer reviews, and word-of-mouth recommendations. A hotel can be evaluated through listed amenities (room and entire facility), third-party evaluations such as Trip Advisor, and word-of-mouth recommendations. Even a capital good, such as a farm tractor, can be evaluated by feature sets, brand reputation, and tradeshow information. It is fairly easy to create a decision matrix with this information and, then, initiate a purchase if the product meets the decision criteria. This mindset holds true whether the selling company is in the consumer’s home country or 5000 miles away.

Conversely, experience goods must be personally evaluated. Many food products can be described as delicious, but interpretation of that word lies with the individual, especially in light of numerous cultural differences related to taste. Similarly, makeup sites may includes color sample photos and enthusiastic customer reviews, but it is difficult to evaluate color matches online. Once an experience good has been personally evaluated, a consumer may be extremely willing to purchase this item through a website. However, until that evaluation takes place, only the brave consumer (reassured by a generous return policy) will attempt to purchase an experience good online.

From a marketer’s standpoint, if your product is a search good, there could be significant opportunities to sell this product across the globe. However, if your product is an experience good, you could be better off to position your website for brand building or other non-commerce purpose.


Moen, O., Endresen, I., Gavlen, M. (2003). “Executive insights: use of the internet in international marketing – a case study of small computer software firms.” Journal of International Marketing. 11 (4), pp. 129-149.

How different cultures view corporate social responsibility

In the last several decades, most US companies have developed some sort of corporate social responsibility (CSR) program in an effort to better resonate with their customers and employees as well as support their surrounding communities. These programs range from purely local, such as supporting local STEM training, to global, such as distributing portable water filtration systems in impoverished countries.

Research is beginning to indicate that a thoughtfully conceived and implemented CSR program can become a differentiating factor for a company, distinguishing themselves within their target markets. In addition, if a consumer values a particular CSR program, this can become a decision variable when selecting between products.

While most US consumers now expect companies to have some sort of CSR program, even a small local one, there has been little research on how CSR is perceived in other countries.

Becker-Olson, Taylor, Hill, and Yalcinkaya (2011) examined the CSR expectations and perceived value as defined by both US and Mexican consumers. They found that in Mexico, there are “territorial disputes regarding who should manage social issues – the government, NGOs, individuals, the church, or private enterprises.” In addition, Mexico is a collective society, based on Hofstede’s cultural dimensions; therefore, most people believe in helping those within their groups, whether those groups are family, neighbors, co-workers, etc. Similarly, they found in the US that many consumers easily accept both the idea of CSR and the resulting programs due to the increasing number of marketing communications about programs; in fact, most US consumers now even desire the activities of many CSR programs, such “races for cures.”

Becker-Olson et al. discovered that Mexican consumers actually value CSR programs more than their US counterparts, likely because they value, from a collectivist standpoint, the idea of helping those close to them. In addition, they attached a prestige value to products coming from companies with strong CSR programs and showed stronger brand recognition of those companies.

From a international marketer’s perspective, this research is just an initial step in examining global attitudes towards CSR. However, it could be worthwhile to consider expanding CSR programs as you expand into new markets.


Becker-Olsen, K., Taylor, C., Hill, R., Yalcinkaya, G. (2011). “A cross-cultural examination of corporate social responsibility marketing communications in Mexico and the United States: strategies for global brands.” Journal of International Marketing. 19 (2) pp. 30-44.

When a local brand is seen as a foreign brand

Researchers have been debating for years about country-of-origin effects, i.e. how do consumers view products from other countries based on the halo effect of that country’s reputation. In virtually every case, this research has been about true non-local products and how they are perceived.

However, Eckhardt (2005) examined a case in which a local product was perceived as being in a “foreign” category and was, therefore, evaluated by that category’s characteristics. In the Eckhardt research, the perceptions studied were of a local pizza restaurant in Andhra Pradesh, India.

This restaurant was not a Western chain transplanted to India; rather, it is a local chain owned by a local entrepreneur. The pizzas themselves were completely localized, i.e. the most popular pizza on the menu is onion, peppers, carrots, and grated beetroot, covered with paneer (a sort of thick cottage cheese) on a bread similar to naan.

Yet, virtually all the customers perceived this restaurant chain as being “Western”, and the environment itself imbued with western values, such as:

Freedom from tradition – the interviewed customers saw eating pizza as a sort of freedom from eating traditional foods at home, which is normally rice-based, eaten with families (not friends), and is a brisk, non-conversational activity. In contrast, the restaurants are designed for lingering and having conversations with friends, and more importantly, with the opposite sex (something normally not done in this area). The perceived “foreignness” of the restaurant makes these activities acceptable. The food itself is seen as a form of cultural tourism, eaten as an occasional treat rather than a regular option.

High status yet unaffordable – the restaurants were perceived as places to “see and be seen” – a middle-class status symbol. While younger people came more frequently to take advantage of the fraternizing opportunities, their parents and families only came on special occasions. Yet, ironically, the price of a pizza for four was essentially equivalent to the cost of preparing a meal at home. In many cases, young men took their dates to these restaurants when they wanted to truly impress them.

Non-transformable to local culture – even though the food was almost completely localized, retaining perhaps only the round shape of Western pizza, it was still seen as being a foreign concoction. Customers were surprised to find out that pizza toppings were different in other countries, seeing their localized pies as being the Western norm.

Eckhardt’s research puts a new spin on the local vs. global branding debate, since it appears that there are local brands that struggle with being perceived as global brands. The restaurant in this study struggled financially due to the customer’s pre-conceived ideas about pizza, since it meant that pizza was not seen as a daily food option. It could mean that a local brand in this situation may have to abandon standard “local” marketing practices and, instead, brand itself as a foreign product.


Eckhardt, G. (2005) “Local branding in a foreign market category in an emerging market.” Journal of International Marketing. 13 (4) pp. 57-79.



Cueing a decision

One of the core functions of competitive intelligence is determining how your competitor will react to your actions in the marketplace. Most “war gaming” exercises use Western-based decision theories to develop hypotheses about potential competitor behavior in different scenarios. These exercises, therefore, at their cores, are about how individualistic cultures react to threats or make decisions.

Aaker and Maheswaran (1997) examined how individualist and collectivist cultures react to information cues (such as word-of-mouth comments) and are then persuaded by these cues. They discovered the following:

Individualistic cultures – individuals tend to make their decisions based on their personal traits, such as levels of aggressiveness, need for control, etc. When the decisions are made, these people tend to use information cues as “sources of reflected appraisal, standards of comparison, or sources of feedback that are used to verify the correctness of their decision.”

Collectivist cultures – individuals tend to make their decisions based on their social relations, or the “good of the group.” Information cues are used to identify the likes, preferences and needs of the group, which then leads to the decision that best fits the group. These cues are essentially considered diagnostic, in that they identify (or diagnose) the best course of action. Individual traits or needs are subjugated to the desires of the group.

While competitive intelligence war games are an extremely valid exercise when evaluating competitor moves, in a global environment, the underlying cultural differences should be carefully considered.


Aaker, J., & Maheswaran, D. (2007). “The effect of cultural orientation on persuasion.” The Journal of Consumer Research. 24 (3), pp. 315-328.