The Significance of Language in B2B Marketing

‘It’s OK to use English with the Business community. Everyone understands it’… A sweeping statement, used more and more often, which can sometimes be accepted as easily as it is stated. The truth is more complex.

It’s quite surprising how so many professional marketeers, people who are steeped in their profession and are acutely aware of the importance of ‘framing the message’, ‘managing the message’, of ‘delivery’ and ‘terminology’, ‘context’ and ‘style’ are prepared to move ahead on this assurance, especially when it can impact such large parts of their target market. Increasingly the line that ‘the Internet has changed everything’ is used to justify an element of lazy thinking in many spheres. Language is a classic example.

The truth is more like this. ‘In some foreign markets you can get away with using English, some of the time’… That is usually second best. It is usually sub par, it is not ‘maximising efficiency’ and it is ‘risky’.

While it is true that the Internet has altered the picture, some of the old truths remain valid so it is worth reminding ourselves of why language is important occasionally.

a) It is certainly true that many Business people around the world understand But how well they understand it varies considerably. So immediately you have split your target market.

Depending on your target audience, and the regions your message is going to, that message can only hope to reach a reduced percentage of that target audience.

From those to whom your message reaches you need to subtract a small number, those who cannot read English, depending on the region in question this may be anything from 2% to as high as 50%. From those you also need to subtract a somewhat larger number, those who will not bother to read an article in English.

When your paying to get in front of this audience these numbers can add up.

Now consider what happens to the percentage of your target audience who stay with you. Distraction is a key issue and it certainly happens in English speaking regions, but the problem is magnified under these conditions. Of those who start reading your message another significant percentage only get so far through, they become distracted or are interrupted and it’s slightly easier to move on and something in their first language may well be more appealing than something in a second language . The fall out will be higher than would be the case with an English speaking audience.

Of those that read the entire message, there will be a range of understanding. Everything from ‘I understood every single word and nuance’ to ‘I understood half of it but it seemed interesting and I needed to practice my English’.

There are no hard and fast rules on this. Many factors can impact the issue including which foreign region we are talking about, through to the subject matter, complexity & length of a message.

The danger however is that using English to deliver a message, in a region where English is not the first language, can easily mean that your message gets through to a hugely diluted target audience when compared to the equivalent message released to an English target market.

b) Without a doubt your message, If you are delivering your message in English then your message is framed for an English market.

The dangers of that must be apparent to any marketing professional. Anything from misinterpretation, missing the point to humorous idiocies can creep in. Words cunningly crafted in English can lose their meaning when passed to a foreign audience, even when they do speak English. It’s quite likely the strength of the original message will be lost on a foreign audience to some degree and your perhaps brief, and often expensive, opportunity to reach out to them might be lost.

We don’t need to look so far to find examples of that happening. Poor copy is the enemy of a marketing in an English speak region, it is easy to understand how much more likely that might be when communicating with non native English speakers.

c) It’s courtesy

Most companies, when entering a ‘new language’ market, will seek native speakers to act as sales people for their products and services. Employing Sales people or building partnerships with locals is seen as part of the cost. Yet when it comes to copy for their messaging, in a B2B world, the courtesy, for some reason, seems less likely. It maybe the influence of the Internet. People view the world through a smaller lens these days. But what hasn’t been properly measured is the impact of that lack of courtesy in the B2B scenario.

The point is this. If you were forced to read Marketing material in a foreign language how does that effect your thinking of the product or service, or more especially the supplier. It is probable there are a range of reactions from ‘totally no problem’ to ‘I am really quite uncomfortable’. Such attitudes probably are also a little influenced by international political events and if current events are anything to go by this might be worth thinking about.


With costs such as time, translation, distribution and copy checking dealing with multiple languages can seem like a heavy burden. The, Internet and the choice of English as the language of Business makes it attractive to consider moving away from dealing with all the issues of language.

But the fact that many companies do take the time to deliver their messages using multiple languages is evidence that it is far from impossible. Languages do not have to be the burden they once were. It is true that costs remain but these costs can be as nothing compared to the costs of not dealing with Language issues in a fully considered fashion. Not doing so can significantly blunt (even destroy) a campaign.

Certainly it is a complicated subject, but the real point here is that maintaining an awareness of the issues around language, and factoring them into your planning. Language is a significant piece in any process when delivering campaigns in regions with non English speakers.