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Addressing Lack of Diversity, Cultural Appropriation, and Other Missteps in CX Localization

Earlier this year we released our 2021 Global Multilingual CX Report containing key findings we discovered from surveying more than 2,750 consumers in Brazil, France, Germany, Japan, the UK, and the US. The report contains many fascinating insights regarding what buyers across the world want and expect when communicating with international brands. 

Of chief importance, our report found that the ability to provide customer experiences across multiple languages is table stakes for organizations that want to thrive on a global scale. Over two-thirds (69%) of consumers believe it is extremely or very important that brands offer an end-to-end customer experience in their native language. Another essential component in providing a strong global CX is quality. More than half (52%) of our survey respondents said poor quality translations are an issue when engaging with localized customer experiences. 

But business can’t assume that offering high-quality multilingual translations is enough. Our survey revealed there is plenty of room for improvement when it comes to being more culturally aware in order to make customers feel seen and understood. Here are three areas brands should focus on when looking to communicate with tact and consideration. 

Promote diversity and inclusion in localization efforts

When we asked about customers’ challenges with global brands that offer localized experiences, one-third of respondents reported being bothered by a lack of representation and 28% said they dislike a lack of diversity and inclusion. 

Visuals and design may be the culprits behind both of these interconnected localization challenges. Even if the text on a given page contains no glaring errors and resonates with the reader, lack of diversity, inclusion, and representation in imagery can ultimately leave a user feeling alienated and unsatisfied with their experience. Research from Shutterstock found that content featuring racially diverse models has seen a 26% global increase over the past year — but that number needs to be much higher. 

Think about it: If the models shown enjoying a product or using a service look and act nothing like the people that a customer encounters in their community on a regular basis, is that true localization? Your organization has to maintain a holistic view of its multilingual and multicultural communications to ensure that no one is left feeling marginalized or excluded from your brand. 

“A localization team’s job is, quite simply, to ensure that these users become included, not left behind,” says Nataly Kelly, VP of Localization at HubSpot. “We are the allies and advocates who seek to empower those users.” 

Snuff out stereotypes and slang

22% of global consumers say they have a problem with stereotyping when it comes to the localized customer experience they encounter. Stereotyping — which involves assuming and overgeneralizing characteristics about someone based on the social or cultural group they belong to — results from companies trying to be more inclusive but painting with a broad brush and ultimately missing the mark. 

Localization professionals must do their homework to accurately capture the subtle nuances of how people in various regions interact. At Unbabel, we help organizations avoid accidental stereotypes and insensitive communications by offering free language guides filled with tips for understanding cultural differences and respecting social norms.

For example, although Germans are sometimes stereotyped as being rowdy and gregarious in the US, our guide explains that Germany is actually a restrained, “low context” culture. That means they typically suppress their emotions and may have difficulty picking up on non-verbal cues and body language. Or, in Korea, people value kibun, which has no English translation but refers to feelings, pride, and state of mind. In their culture, telling a “white lie” to avoid insulting someone is preferred to being brutally honest. 

It’s also best to avoid trying to use slang across multiple languages (unless you know that a particular phrase or idiom preserves its meaning when translated) as it might confuse customers and muddy the intended message. Our survey discovered that one in five consumers have been troubled by offensive use of slang or idioms in localization.

One of our Senior Editors, Rasmus, recalls a customer service translation he prevented from being rather distasteful: “The funniest one I’ve seen was an idiom that doesn’t really work in English,” he said. “‘To fart for the price,’ which in Danish, means to haggle. I remember laughing out loud when I read it in English.” Human-refined machine translation technology can help avoid such embarrassing slip ups that could cause customers to furrow their brows — and abandon your brand. 

Know the difference between cultural appreciation and appropriation 

When trying to pay homage to another country within your brand’s native culture, there’s a significant difference between appreciation and appropriation. The former is about taking the time to study and understand another culture in order to broaden one’s perspective and connect with people; the latter happens when a person or group selects and adopts a single element of another culture for their own interest and gain. 20% of our survey respondents said they have faced challenges with appropriation in localized customer experiences. 

Consider the difference between these two situations. Last year, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London held "Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk," which featured dozens of kimonos dating back to the 1600s along with educational materials about the iconic Japanese garment. Two years ago, Kim Kardashian received considerable backlash when she attempted to launch “Kimono,” a brand of shapewear that appeared to be a pun on her own name and was totally unrelated to Japanese fashion. Which of these do you think was appreciation vs. appropriation? 

Countries, such as Japan, featuring rich cultures that are often fetishized by Western society can be especially sensitive to the implications of cultural appropriation. Over one-fourth (26%) of the Japanese consumers we surveyed said they believe cultural appropriation is a major CX issue. Similar to the efforts that should be taken to avoid stereotyping, the best way to avoid appropriation is to take the time and effort to get to know other cultures and how to best show your appreciation for them. 

Beyond education, your organization should look into utilizing focus groups and market research to determine what branding and messaging may inadvertently come off as offensive. It’s important to bring as many diverse perspectives and people into customer experience conversations as possible.

“The things about someone that are different from you are things you may not understand,” said human rights activist Mungi Ngomane in a conversation with our CEO Vasco Pedro. “Because, like you, they're human. And they're deserving. Conversations about diversity and inclusion start from this notion that we're all worthy.” 

The key to avoiding localization missteps 

Designing and refining a premium quality customer experience is all about putting the customer, no matter who they are or where they live, at the center of all that you do. Every touchpoint across every channel must be tailored to the unique preferences and needs of each target audience. The localization industry still has a ways to go before companies can truly connect with their customers on an intimate cultural level. 

At Unbabel, we know that standalone machine translation often puts companies on a fast track to saying things they don’t intend. That’s why our human-in-the loop AI translation approach leverages thousands of diverse editors around the globe to enable near real-time translation with the preservation of cultural nuance and understanding. 

Interested in hearing more insights from our Global State of Multilingual CX Report? Download the full report.