Amazon’s uneven (and not unusual) language strategy

Amazon Crossing is the Amazon publishing imprint dedicated to translating non-English books into English. In just a few years it has grown to be a leading translator of literary novels.

I noted earlier that Amazon.in doesn’t significantly support Indian languages. But on the Amazon Crossing submission page, you will find support for Hindi, Bengali and Punjabi. The global gateway is shown below on the right:

The gateway is (sadly) missing a globe icon — though I suspect the Amazon Crossing logo is partly to blame (one globe too many perhaps).

Other languages supported include Arabic, Portuguese and Russian. What’s interesting here is that the language mix is noticeably different on the Amazon.com site.

Both Amazon.com and Amazon Crossing support 13 languages in addition to English as noted in the 2017 Report Card, which means Amazon still has a long ways to go before it competes with the leaders in languages. Here is the average number of languages supported by the leading global brands over the past seven years.

But what I wanted to call attention to is Amazon’s uneven support for languages across its different products and services — a phenomenon that is not unique to Amazon. Many multinationals I work with support different language mixes for different properties. The rationale is sound: Different products and services have different audiences, marketing strategies, global and regional partners, and local opportunities.

But how do you balance an uneven language strategy with a consistent global content architecture? For example, let’s say you have one product page localized into Russian and a visitor to that product page goes to the global nav menu and selects another product, naturally assuming this other product also is also localized into Russian, only to discover it is not.

This problem is only going to grow more acute as more companies decentralize their global product content and marketing strategies.

Of course, every challenge is also an opportunity. Where companies can differentiate themselves is in how effectively they manage user expectations, manage language expectations, and how they leverage machine translation to fill language gaps.

To learn more about which companies are doing the best job at managing language expectations, check out the Web Globalization Report Card.

China sees the future in Africa (and it’s not alone)

Earlier this year, The Los Angeles Times ran a fascinating series on China and Africa and I only just got around to reading it.

I recommend at least reading Part I.

China is funding a massive railroad project connecting Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, to the port city of Djibouti where most of the country’s exports have previously traveled by way of roads in disrepair.

Clearly, China is not doing this for philanthropic reasons. It need resources. But China has a long game in mind as well — selling products to the locals (which is has been doing quite successfully for a number of years).

Some fascinating takeaways from the article:

By 2034, Africa is expected to have 1.1 billion workers, the world’s largest working-age population, according to economic forecasts. By 2025, the continent’s consumers will be spending $2 trillion a year.

And:

Zhang was proud of his Ethiopian investments. The new rail will knock shipping prices from $5,000 per container to $3,000, he said. And for the cost of one Chinese worker, Zhang can hire five Ethiopians. He plans to employ 50,000 within eight years.

“Ethiopia is like China was 40 years ago,” he said. “Even though this place is pretty tough, we think within five or 10 years, its economic development will be pretty good.”

China has not proven yet that it can build global brands. But it has proven itself adapt at building cheap white-label products. It sees in Africa an emerging base of middle-class consumers, a familiar growth pattern. That’s not to say China doesn’t face cultural and political challenges, but that as other Western countries have pulled back in Africa, China has found itself welcomed with open arms.

The CEOs of Google, Microsoft and Facebook have all visited Nigeria over the past year and have announced investments around training developers, supporting new businesses and increasing Internet penetration.

What The Google CEO’s Visit To Nigeria Means For Africa

So the question for any global company should be: What’s your Africa strategy? 

The Language of Global Success (and the rise of the English-only multinational)

The dream is profound  — a global company united by one language. Employees communicating freely with one another across border and culture, improving productivity and sharing of ideas.

The reality, however, is quite a bit messier than the dream.

But that doesn’t stop CEOs from dreaming.

Such as Hiroshi Mikitani, the CEO of Rakuten, Japan’s leading ecommerce company (and one of the largest by revenues globally). Here is a screen shot of the Rakuten Japan home page. The company is often referred to as the Amazon of Japan.

In 2010, Mikani announced that the company’s 10,000 employees (90% of whom were Japanese) would transition to English over the next two years, beginning that day. Professor Neeley had a front-row seat to this massive transformation, covering it over a period of five years, resulting in The Language of Global Success.

If you have any interest in the globalization of companies, this book is an absolute must read. Neeley had full access to Rakuten employees. She conducted surveys and interviewed staff in Japan as well as parts of Asia, Europe, the US and Brazil. And she has spent many years studying not just Rakuten but other English-only multinationals, such as Siemens and SAP.

The author successfully captured the cross-border and cross-cultural tensions that I often witness in my consulting engagements. And the anecdotes she collects from this 5-year Englishnization project are entertaining. For example, when an American Rakuten executive hears the big English-only announcement, he exclaims, “Thank God he picked my language.”

But the Americans eventually realize that a common language comes with unexpected challenges. As the Japan HQ becomes more English-literate, it is better able to translate its corporate culture (and rules) to all local offices. Eventually, a phone-book-sized employee manual arrives in the US office, detailing such requirements a wearing your ID badge in a specific location at all times. One can imagine how the American employees felt when they were faulted for employee badge infractions, something trivial to them but not at all trivial to HQ.

In the end, everyone became expats during this transition; Neely identifies three categories:

  • Linguistic expats: Japanese employees who now feel lost in this new language environment
  • Cultural expats: Employees who may be fluent in English but lost within this new global (Japanese) corporate culture.
  • Dual-expats: Employees who are not native speakers of English nor native to Japanese culture, such as employees in Europe.

Dual expats turn out to be the best positioned to adapt to the new “global” culture. After all, they were dealing with a mixture of languages and cultures from day one and felt no loss of status or control along the way.

Englishnization vs. Americanization

The choice of language is both obvious and contentious. English has become the informal second language of the world, but it’s important to differentiate between language and culture. Just because Rakuten chose the language didn’t mean the CEO wasn’t also choosing American or Western culture. Though he was clear that he hoped there would be a change in corporate culture within Rakuten (less conformist, more entrepreneurial), which I’m not sure occurred. By the end of the book, Rakuten is still very much a Japanese company, but one that speaks English.

And I would suggest, in the interests of fairness, that native-English speakers be required to pick up a second language. Perhaps Spanish, for the American office. Doing so would send the message that English isn’t the “best” language, simply the most practical for a global company.

Key takeaways from the book include:

  • If your CEO isn’t fully committed, forget it. There is no doubt that had Mikitani-san not pushed and pushed during the transition that this effort would have been a failure. It’s not simply a matter of sending out a memo. The CEO offered to train employees himself at one point.
  • A common language is not the same thing as a common culture.  In fact, a common language will illuminate cultural challenges to a degree not before fully seen or understood.
  • Cross-cultural training should also be included with language training. People need to understand the differences between collectivism cultures (such as Japan) versus individualism cultures (such as the United States.
  • Employees must have a shared vision of becoming a global company, no longer an assortment of local companies.

The bottom line: Was it worth the trouble?

The CEO says it was, and many employees agree. But productivity suffered along the way. And one could argue that Rakuten did what was inevitable for any global company.

The company has grown over the past five years and is better positioned now to recruit global, English-speaking talent. And the cross-fertilization of ideas between different geographies is now evident, a big plus, and perhaps the greatest upside of all.

The Language of Global Success: How a Common Tongue Transforms Multinational Organizations

Tsedal Neeley

Princeton University Press