4 Common Mistakes When Translating Packaging

Translating packaging can be one of the most meticulous and attention-intensive parts of preparing your brand for a new market. Forget about just making sure you aren’t inadvertently offending your new customers with translation errors, you may also have to comply with a whole new set of product labeling regulations as well as localize your brand message for a vastly different culture.

Combine these elements with the expense associated with printing and assembly and you have the potential for making costly mistakes. It can be a daunting task. And many times, firms don’t seriously consider the value of translation and localization services before they enter a new market. (For a quick overview of what you need to consider before entering a new market, check this quick list out.)

When we engage with firms who originally started the translation process on their own or with a vendor who didn’t stress localization, we often see the same key errors. Here are some of the biggest, most common packaging translation mistakes we see (and how to avoid them).

Mistake #1: Skipping Brand Transcreation

More often than they should, U.S. firms decide not to transcreate their brand message when they enter a new market. Instead, they will begin with the idea of strictly translating their message and tag lines and, with some idea that this process can go horribly (and hilariously) wrong, they will attempt to localize particular elements of the campaign by looking beyond the strict translation of a term and doing more to convey the idea intended by the original. Transcreation goes a step further and makes the entirety of a company’s marketing message deeply relevant and emotionally appealing to the target market. This more involved process often necessitates new understandings and concepts that aren’t part of the product line’s original, domestic brand message. But the results are overwhelmingly positive. (For an example, see the example of the appliance market in China mentioned here.)

Taking the time to research a new market to determine how a brand fits into it is always worth the effort. Failing to engage in meaningful transcreation becomes a problem for your packaging efforts just as much as it can be for the larger scope of advertising and marketing. Your brand message dictates everything; from colors and fonts to the actual copy used. And getting it right can mean the difference between someone picking your product up and buying it versus not remembering they saw it in the first place. Having a transcreated brand identity before you begin modifying your packaging for specific markets ensures that it will successfully attract consumers.

Mistake #2: Not Having a Localized Compliance Checklist

Following the local regulatory and legal requirements in a new market is crucial to avoiding fees and fines down the road. Every market is different and every market has different rules. Understanding and following those rules is essential to success. Sometimes foreign companies who are new to a market don’t understand all of the ins and outs of local regulations, either as they apply generally or to specific categories of product (think “GMO labeling in Russia”). Or companies simply forget an important detail like including both French and English descriptions on packaging for the Canadian market in the madness of preparing their product for an international launch.

Having a localized checklist to go through when translating each and every product is a great way to avoid costly mistakes. Figure out all of the applicable rules and regulations and then make a checklist so you don’t have to look things up each time you translate a different product. In the long term, it will save you time and help you avoid costly mistakes.

Mistake #3: Lacking Local Market Knowledge of Important Cultural Differences

Understanding cultural differences is a big part of effectively translating your product. Beyond simply adapting your message and perhaps even your company name in a way that makes sense to foreign customers, you need to make sure you understand how they use and view your product. Is it a luxury item or an everyday necessity? Is it the kind of thing you buy in bulk or something you only have occasionally? The answers to these questions can drastically differ from market to market.

While this may seem like a rehashing of the point above about transcreation, we are really talking about more practical issues. To be sure, luxury goods and commodities vary quite a bit from culture to culture. A clothes dryer, which many American households would consider a necessity, is more of a luxury item or, at the very least, an extra in Europe.

But a lack of local knowledge can hurt you in ways that don’t relate to your brand message. For example, portion sizes for foods differ wildly from culture to culture. And it is a big factor in how you package such products. Americans are known for having supersized portions of just about everything. But consumption levels can vary drastically from market to market. In Asian markets, for example, cereal is not the preferred breakfast choice so purchasing large boxed servings doesn’t make much sense to consumers. Now they might still buy cereal but it will be more attractively packaged in a smaller sized box. The list goes on: clothing sizing, care instructions, etc.

Mistake #4: Failing to Invest in Market Research on Best Fit Imaging and Feedback

Investing in research today can mean a big boost in the long run. And running limited product tests in a new market can be a very efficient and powerful way to further refine the effectiveness of your packaging. Even if you think you have a great transcreated version of your brand and every part of your campaign fits this new idea, you might be missing a key detail.

Take the time to test your product in the new market and get feedback from the kind of people you actually want to buy it. Sometimes the best ideas still fall flat in the marketplace. Try different images, colors and ideas, and learn which ones are most effective. The key here is to build a feedback loop into your packaging development plans from the beginning and to introduce products to a new market in phases rather than going “all in” at the outset.

You never truly know what a new consumer’s reaction to your product will be. Avoiding these mistakes will increase your likelihood of a successful entry and is well worth the additional time and expense. Paying now for the “ounce of prevention and preparation” is a more than reasonable insurance policy against paying for a very costly “pound of cure” when remediating a failed campaign.

We’d love to hear about your successes (and horror stories) with introducing packaging to a new market.