Updated: Jul 11
When it comes to advertising, healthcare and pharma companies don’t cut corners. The pharmaceutical industry is the second biggest spender on advertising of all US industries. . In 2021, that added up to a 9 billion USD advertising budget. Still, not all pharma and health ads are successful on a global level. One of the biggest reasons comes down to not understanding the importance of language and localization (adapting content so that it’s understandable and relatable to consumers in a particular market). Together, translation and localization are sometimes called “transcreation,” and their role in advertising for different markets shouldn’t be underestimated. When they are, mistakes like these could occur: ● A TV spot for Gripex HotActive was banned from Polish airwaves because it seemed to promise instant relief. This may be all right in certain markets, but not in Poland. A localization expert would be aware of this issue and would have recommended the ad be changed or adapted to local regulations. ● A translation error led to a mind-boggling 47 erroneous knee replacements in Germany. Information in its original English source identified prostheses as "non-modular cemented”; this was inaccurately translated into German as “without cement”. ● An ad by hair care company Tresemme caused an uproar in the South African market due to its portrayal of four different examples of hair health. While hair described as “frizzy”, “dull”, and “damaged” was illustrated by Black women, hair that was called “normal” was illustrated by white women. The ad (rightfully) outraged consumers and fellow brands in other markets, but it hit especially hard in South Africa, a country still haunted by apartheid. Although the ad should never have been approved for any market, some knowledge of the local culture would have indicated that this was an especially bad place to use it.
These are glaring errors, but without proper translation and localization, it’s frighteningly easy to make more subtle ones, too. For instance, healthcare communications expert Ross Thomas writes about how Viagra’s “horns” ad campaign, which has a clever and cheeky connotation in the US market, would have gone over badly in Europe, where horns are often associated with cuckolds. On a more troubling note, researchers found that Google Translate, as well as some professional human translators without medical translation or localization experience, translated “cleft lip” and “cleft palate” into the equivalent of the insensitive and no longer used term “harelip” in a number of foreign languages. These translation mistakes and many others were averted because of one thing: linguistic and cultural knowledge. These concepts are key for success in a global market -- and that’s not just us, a translation company saying it: Even Forbes magazine has listed language and localization issues as one of the top three ways businesses fail in global markets. So, what should healthcare and pharma companies keep in mind when adapting advertising to international markets? ● See the potential in medical marketing. Maybe part of the issue is that some people in the advertising and medical industries see medical ads as being functional, not necessarily creative. But brand strategist Fran Griffin has a different view: As a strategist, healthcare is a dream. We always talk about solving problems, but these aren’t your typical "how does our tinned soup improve family life" problems, these are real, "what…would I do in that scenario" problems. How can we help Muslims with diabetes safely fast during Ramadan? How can we teach addiction therapists the risks of Hepatitis C for people who inject drugs? How do we help sick kids enjoy playtime? Maintaining a sense of motivation and innovation can help remind healthcare and pharma companies that it’s worth investing in properly translated and localized ad campaigns in all markets. ● Don’t overlook multilingual and multi-cultural markets. Remember that different linguistic and cultural populations can exist in the same market - for instance, the Hispanic population in the United States. According to a recent survey, more than 70% of brands can see an increase in awareness if websites and other material are adapted for local languages and cultures. ● Don’t forget to localize social media. As we reported in a previous article, more than half of adults look for medical information online. For Gen Z, that goes up to an impressive 90%. It’s hard to make a connection if it’s not in a language or connotation that your target audience can understand! ● Work with professional translators who know the local culture just as well as its language. Even major brands like Starbucks, Target, and Walmart have had their international fails. In most cases, these came down to not taking time to understand how people in a specific overseas market like to shop or what they value in a brand. With the right translation and localization team, an ad campaign can deliver on its promises in markets around the world. But overlook the need for expertise in this area, and ads can fall flat - or even flirt with disaster. At aiaTranslations, we know that language and culture go hand in hand. Our extensive team of international experts mean you’ll be able to get transcreation services for any market.
Contact Our Writer – Alysa Salzberg