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  • Writer's pictureElse Gellinek

The many aspects of marketing translation: A German-American case study

Article contributed by Else Gellinek, Sprachrausch

Marketing copy varies from country to country, not only because of linguistic but also because of cultural differences. Marketing translators have a trained eye for these often subtle variations and will customize a translation to retain the persuasiveness of the original marketing message.

Some points to consider in marketing translation

A successful marketing translation goes beyond the words on the page and considers the multitude of factors the original copy took into account, this time with the target group the translated copy is intended for in mind.

Some of these factors are:

  • Target audiences, client segments, selling points, brand message

  • Tone of voice, communication style

  • How to address the client: Level of formality

  • Informativeness: How strong is the focus on practical or functional aspects of the product?

  • Humor: Can it be translated? Is it relatable for another culture?

  • Cultural and historical references

  • Cultural values and norms

  • Images, layout, fonts

Let’s take Germany and the USA as an example: Both cultures are considered to be quite close, yet they often take different marketing approaches. As a general rule, German writing tends to be more impersonal and formal, more informative, and focus more strongly on product features and text. American copy tends to be more direct and informal, and use images besides text to convey the message. (Mind you, these are sweeping generalizations.)

Marketing and brand message, tone of voice

  • In Germany, smart cars are marketed as innovative and environmentally friendly. Much of the paragraph-length copy is devoted to presenting facts and figures about how reliable and green the smart electric drive is. The focus lies on smart features.

The American website focuses on a different aspect, presenting a smart that is fun and modern. What little copy there is, has a lighthearted tone with a lot of boost. Facts and figures exist, but they’re in a second layer of the significantly more interactive site and packaged in light banter.

  • Actually, the top image on the American site displays ample technical and pricing information — more than you’ll find above the fold on the German website — but keeps the users’ eyes focused on the image by spreading the information over its length, thus avoiding a dense layout. The fixed header and custom icons also remove the pressure to include long copy on the page. Allover, the focus is on a smart benefit: fun. The smart car is fun to drive and the copy mirrors this by being fun to read. The German copy also mentions fun, but retains a neutral tone throughout.

Addressing the client, level of formality

  • German marketing copy typically uses impersonal sentences, as is the case here. Above the fold, the copy focuses on the smart’s features. While the copy does address readers below the fold, it only tells them to “click here” for further information, always using the formal “Sie” to address the customer. The copy is speaking to the users, but with the aim to inform and not to start a conversation.

  • On the American page, the company presents itself as a friendly “we,” speaking directly to users and drawing them in. This creates a chatty atmosphere, which is in keeping with the young and fun car being sold.

Colors, images, layout

  • The American website has a more playful pastel palette, whereas the German site is designed in crisp, clean green and white. Both color palettes are tailored to the individual messages (fun vs. innovative).

  • You’ll also notice that the model shown on the US site is a convertible, evoking a carefree driving experience and again the message of fun. The German site features a regular coupé in its first image, aiming for a more earnest and technology-focused message.

What about the target audiences?

Interesting fact: The copy on the UK smart fortwo electric drive website is very close to the German copy. This neatly demonstrates that marketing translations also need to focus on the specific target market and not just linguistic and cultural aspects. Who is the translation for? What are the demographics of the buyers the copy is meant to persuade? Take the American tagline “It’s fun. It’s zippy. It’s the kind of car that makes you smile.” (found below the fold) and compare that with “The future of motoring has arrived,” which is the UK version of the German tagline “Zukunft, die heute schon fährt.” Unlike German or British drivers, it would appear that American car buyers aren’t too interested in minimizing their carbon footprint, which explains the different marketing strategy chosen. The US smart website is obviously targeting a different client segment than the European smart websites are.

Final thoughts

Marketing translation is an intricate process and requires savvy translators able to perform the necessary cultural tweaks to ensure that marketing messages find their way to international clients. And — as the smart example shows — language issues are not the only factors essential to successful marketing translation: A solid knowledge of the translation’s target audience is also vital.


Sources: • Burnaz,Sebnem, Nimet Uray, Berk Ataman and A. Banu Elmadag, Analysis of Advertising content: A Cross Cultural Comparison of American, German and Turkish Advertisements. last accessed Jan. 4, 2015. • Hager, Michael (2003), “Culture and German Advertising”, Global Business Language (8) 7, last accessed Jan. 4, 2015. • Liu-Thompkins, Yuping, Online Advertising: A Cross-Cultural Synthesis. In: Handbook of Research on International Advertising. 303–324. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing. 2012 last accessed Jan. 4, 2015. last accessed Jan. 4, 2015. last accessed Jan. 4, 2015. • Torresi, Ira, Translating Promotional and Advertising Texts, Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing, 2010.


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