Social media for brands:
going global and staying local

It might sound obvious, though few brands do it well: social media success is easier when you speak to people in their own language…

You may remember HSBC’s recent ad campaign in which it positioned itself as “the world’s local bank”: we’re an organisation with global reach that nevertheless understands the importance of understanding local cultures and customs, the bank said. It highlights an interesting challenge for any brand that expands beyond its original borders.

Growing into additional territories is an important way of attracting new customers; but understanding people on a local level is an important way of keeping them. There’s a tension there that can be difficult to deal with, and you’ll notice that most high-profile ad campaigns come with some kind of localisation attached — an ad that airs in the the United States would usually be substantially re-jigged for the UK market.

Social media brings the issue into focus even more sharply: here are platforms that reach everyone on the planet with an Internet connection. Last year we ran some revealing analysis of how football teams performed on various social media channels, and it’s a useful reference point. Many of the biggest teams have supporters from many different nations, speaking many different languages, but often all served from one Twitter account.

If you’re a soccer fan perhaps you’ve noticed some Premier League stars tweeting in both their native tongue and English, but players can be much more informal and relaxed than their clubs can (up to a point, anyway). The aim is, as we’ve noted before, to successfully market to international fans without estranging local ones, so what’s the secret?

Speak the language

If you only follow @ChelseaFC you may not be aware of it, but the club manages Twitter accounts in 13 different languages — no doubt many of the fans following these accounts understand English perfectly, but there’s something more immediate and more meaningful about communicating in your own language.

In the same vein, many online fan events (such as Facebook Q&As) will be hosted in more than one language. That doesn’t mean John Terry has to learn Spanish, but it does mean if Cesc Fàbregas joins in with an online event, he’ll switch between both English and Spanish to appeal to both sets of fans.

Real Madrid is another useful example: 15.3m followers for its official Twitter account and another 5.12m for its English language one. There are many in that latter group who would probably have followed the Spanish feed in the absence of an English one, but there’s no doubt the club increases its audience reach by being available in several different languages at once.

The strong bonds that might apply to a youngster growing up in the shadow of the Bernabeu aren’t so strong to someone in China or India — here a social media presence in the local language could be the difference between supporters signing up to follow Los Blancos or picking Barcelona instead. Twitter itself is a very US-focused service: many clubs also have accounts on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent.

This doesn’t apply to just football clubs, of course. Google is busy tweeting in English, German, Portuguese and several other languages, reaching a far wider audience than it otherwise would with a single feed. The extra effort required to get these accounts set up and staffed can really pay dividends when it comes to widening a user base.

Title image: Have a coke and a smile! ☺ by Mike, CC BY 2.0

Know the culture

If you’ve clicked through on any of those foreign language Twitter feeds, you’ll notice it’s not just the same content translated for a local market. Sure, big announcements are duplicated, but there are also a lot of posts that only appear to followers in a certain region.

To continue with Google as an example, Street View is banned in Germany over privacy concerns — it wouldn’t therefore make much sense for @GoogleDE to start celebrating the latest innovations on the camera-equipped cars Google sends out on the roads. The famous Google Doodle is another area where the firm can tailor its output for users in a particular part of the world.

Back to football, and you can see that Liverpool FC celebrates goals very differently on its English and Spanish Twitter accounts to match the audience they’re broadcasting to. While fans may be united together in their love for one team, the way they express that love and engage with the club is going to vary from culture to culture — and the leading soccer teams are amongst the best at tapping into that.

Promoting a luxury car range or a continental beer isn’t quite the same as promoting a sports team, but the same lessons can be adapted to work elsewhere. Putting social media channels into different languages is only the start of the job — there also needs to be a cultural sensitivity and understanding to go alongside it. Otherwise, these efforts run the risk of sounding like an English tourist speaking haltingly from a phrase book.

As we’ve already alluded to, attitudes towards the social networks themselves can vary between different parts of the world. Western teenagers are now much more likely to get excited about Snapchat than Facebook, but Mark Zuckerberg’s social media behemoth continues to enjoy strong growth in countries such as Brazil and India. Knowing which networks to appear on is as helpful as knowing what to say (and how to say it).

When it works well, though, it can be hugely beneficial, even when the language is largely a shared one: consider the reactions Brits would have tothe McDonald’s USA YouTube channel or what Americans would think aboutthe McDonald’s UK YouTube channel. The advertising on both of these channels is finely focused and tuned to its target market.

As is often the case, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to a cross-border social media presence. Split up your social network accounts into too many segments and you run the risk of spreading yourself too thinly — it’s important to focus on where the key audience differences are in terms of language, culture and tone of voice. That’s going to vary from brand to brand and from company to company.

This piece was written by David Nield and originally published on

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