Do You Need to Customize Content from US to UK English? Starbucks Says Yes
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Do You Need to Customize Content from US to UK English? Starbucks Says Yes

Do You Need to Customize Content from US to UK English? Starbucks Says Yes

Localisation for UKMany companies dismiss the notion of customizing US content or products for the specifics of the UK market and the UK audiences because the languages are so close. But appealing to the specific tastes and needs of British speakers may offer a major advantage — a fact that has not gone unnoticed to many savvy companies. As the Brits might say, the penny has dropped.

Yes, Mondays Can Be Great

Since today is Monday (and a Bank Holiday Monday in the UK, for that matter), let’s consider this smart advertising that Starbucks developed some time ago specifically for the UK market, as part of their “Mondays Can Be Great” campaign.

The advertisement cleverly combines Starbucks’ corporate elements with British cultural references, such as Big Ben’s first chime, the first performance of Macbeth, the UK’s first cinema, and the first weekly weather forecast in the UK. The end result of this campaign — developed by the advertising agency AMV BDDO — is the impression of Starbucks as a local brand, attuned to the local cultural differences and tastes.

This demonstrates how customization for the UK market helps drive demand. Customizing or transcreating the highly visible elements of marketing communication and advertising enables companies to adapt or transform the original idea to suit the target culture, making it culturally relevant in the target market, as in this Starbucks example.

Another top priority is preparing websites and adding locally-produced content specific to the UK market, ideally hosted on a local domain. In addition to customizing the website’s core content, make sure to fine-tune your SEO approach, using the UK English terms and keywords that British audiences are likely to use. And while it may seem obvious, don’t forget to customize the contact options like online forms to accommodate the UK address formats, telephone number formats, or the currency.

Global Social Media are OK in the UK

The next logical step is to open up UK-specific social media channels. There is very little difference in the choice of social media between the UK and the US, with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, and Pinterest dominating the space. Effectively half the UK population has an account on Facebook, even if the growth rate has slowed considerably recently, with major brands successfully building their following in the UK. Starbucks is again a good example — currently the page #24 on Facebook in the UK, it features local pages for the UK, as well as other major markets, with a mix of global and local content.

Not every company needs to fully customize their content for the UK market. Major US brands started this trend, and many mid-sized US corporations followed suit, but consumer or retail markets will see the greatest gains. In the B2B space, there is certainly less urgency, and smaller ROI, in localization for the UK market.

So What Needs Changing?

It normally depends on the extent to which you want to appear truly local. The range of potential differences between these two variants of English is large, but in actual practice, it pays off to focus on a few key areas that can deliver the feel of content authored in UK English. In our experience, it’s the following:

  • Spelling. The most visible aspect, and one that is very easy to fix.
  • Punctuation. There are some important differences in punctuation between these two language variants, such as the use of the serial (Oxford) comma.
  • Hyphenation. UK English prefers hyphens in places where US English does not, but even in UK English the trend is towards using fewer hyphens than was the case in the past. Another example is the proper use of em dashes, or sometimes two en dashes, in US English, or the preference for hyphens at morphological breaks when splitting words at the end of a line in the UK English (vs. preference for placing them at syllable breaks in US English).
  • Grammar. Grammar differences between the two English variants are many but mostly small, and typically would not result in misunderstanding. This applies for instance to using irregular plurals, or the present perfect to talk about recent past events in UK English, where American English would often use simple past tense.
  • Vocabulary. While words and their meanings will be normally intelligible, using the correct British English vocabulary is one of the most visible aspects of adapting content for the UK market.
  • Style. This is potentially the most preference-ridden area. While most style guides will contain some important UK English stylistic guidelines, much will depend on the proofreader’s judgment. In general, if the source US English phrases sound awkward or incorrect in UK English — say by appearing too direct, informal, or over-zealous, or it is simply not a way British people would speak — say when US-specific idioms or colloquialisms are used, they should be modified.
  • Culture. Incorporating local culture, such as sports, holidays, and education, into the neutral content is a great way to increase content “stickiness.”

Good News? It Can Be Automated (Partly)

If at this stage you are wondering if customizing US English content for UK markets implies the same efforts and costs as localizing into any other language, fear not. Much can be automated, making this overall process much faster and more cost-effective. Given that many of these changes for UK English are well established and standardized, it makes sense to create a process whereby US words are automatically replaced with their UK equivalents. A conversion table used in this process will contain equivalent US and UK terms in various word forms such as plurals, verb endings, gerunds, etc.

Some of these automatic changes will, however, require human review and judgment, while others, such as orthographic changes, hyphenation or capitalization, are relatively risk-free and generally reliable.

As a rule, the next steps should include a review process where the proofreader can verify the changes made automatically, and make others based on the UK English style guide.

For additional insights, download our article Localizing Content for the UK Market.