Why it’s hard to act global and talk local

At a time when national and cultural differences are in such sharp relief, how does a multinational organisation account for local sensibilities?

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Americans have a reputation for being culturally unattuned to the outside world. What nonsense. Look at Johnson & Johnson’s website: it provides its company Credo in 66 languages – or rather ‘geographies’. One of these is Scotland, and while you may struggle to find any differences from the United Kingdom version, it does show that J&J has an intense interest in local sensitivities.
I am being frivolous (though I don’t think J&J is). But it does highlight a question that I stumble on over and again when looking at the web. At a time when national and cultural differences are in such sharp relief, is it possible for a multinational organisation to treat equally citizens of all the countries in which it operates?
The answer is no, for the simple reason that people speak different languages and total translation would be impossibly expensive. The most impressive piece of online translation I know is Europa, the EU site, but it has no choice; it must keep the Maltese and Latvians as happy as it can. And even Europa provides the bulk of its content in a handful of languages.

Multinational Towers of Babel

The closest the commercial world gets to the electronic Tower of Babel is the consumer-facing multinational. Commercial giants must have a multitude of local sites or else their customers will not buy. Here we are not talking so much about translation as localisation – different products are available in different markets, and other cultural adjustments may be needed. IBM has 87 country sites, with a couple of dozen languages. Is there any difference between its Grenada and Montserrat sites? No, but at least IBM has taken the trouble to create a different domain address for each – yet another culturally sensitive American company.
But hold on. What country site do you get to if you type in the web address ‘www.ibm.com’? Answer: the United States – for Big Blue, as for most US companies, the default site is its home one. By contrast, most European multinationals have an ‘international’ site as well as one for their home market. Look at Nestlé (www.nestle.com) – this is an international site, with Switzerland (www.nestle.ch) just one of the country outliers. Same with Siemens (www.siemens.com, against www.siemens.de) and AstraZeneca (www.astrazeneca.com, against www.astrazeneca.co.uk).

The dot com paradox

Consider the paradox. Just about the most culturally-sensitive website belongs to a company (IBM) that does not apparently see any difference between the world and the United States. This is a near-universal approach among American companies. The great GE sometimes carries plugs on its home page for programmes going out on NBC television. It owns NBC, of course, but should such a paragon of globalisation be promoting something 96 per cent of the world’s population cannot watch? Wander around the Procter & Gamble site – the mix of international material (for investors and the like) and US consumer information is quite confusing.
The Americans do have an excuse, or possibly a reason. ‘Dot com’ addresses are their equivalent of ‘dot co dot uk’ or ‘dot de’, handed out and administered by a US company. So it not surprising that US corporations regard them as home turf. Trouble is, there has been nothing stopping foreigners registering a dot com address, so it has become the international mark of credibility. I know of only one large European company that does not use a dot com address – and ENI uses www.eni.it not out of national pride but because Elgin National Industries already has www.eni.com.

Limited room for manoeuvre in the neutral zone

So, have any European corporations achieved culturally neutrality, producing websites that will please everyone – or at least jar with no one? It really is not easy. For a start, there is no such thing as neutral spelling – do you use ‘z’ or ‘s’ in organisation/organization? Do you have a media centre or a media center (Nestlé uses the US spelling, which is odd as even the Canadians use ‘centre’)? Do you make silly mistakes that give away your nationality? Bayer promotes a film called ‘Bayer: Science for a better life’, except that the opening quotation mark is at the bottom of the letter, in the German style.
If you think I am being wildly anglocentric, you’re right – but so are many continental European corporations. There is no French or German version of Nestle.com, there is no Swedish version of Electrolux.com. Oddly, the most determinedly multilingual corporate I know is British – and not just in its local marketing sites.
Vodafone has eight languages listed at the bottom of each page of its corporate site, including Greek and Swedish but not, oddly, French. Clicking any of these leads to the same page in another language – theoretically. In reality, more times than not the target page is in English. As well as the investor and media sections, large chunks of About Vodafone are not translated. This would be an outrage were it not for Vodafone’s marking of every such page with a link to its language policy (roughly, ‘we want to communicate in our visitor’s own language, but we’re not quite there yet’). Vodafone shows it is trying hard, but it hasn’t hung a millstone of compulsion around its own neck. I call that cost effective cultural sensitivity.
Actually, there is a giant US corporation that has a truly international website. It is called Johnson & Johnson and its site, while looking very American, tries hard indeed to put all nationalities on an equal footing – not just the Scots. I wonder if its compatriots will follow its good example.
First published on ft.com 21.7.2005

First published 27 July, 2005
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