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Get The Picture: Visual Localisation

The difference between translation and localisation isn’t new to us as contact centres. Translation converts something into another language whilst localisation considers geographical and cultural nuance before doing so. But are well aware that we need to be hot on localising images, as well as words?

We only need to look at a couple of Disney and Pixar movies to see that pictures don’t have a ‘one size fits all’ setting around the globe. In the Japanese cut of Inside Out, a baby brutally rejects a green pepper - because this vegetable was deemed more easily ‘snubbable’ than broccoli by the Japanese. Zootopia’s newscaster was changed from a moose in the US version to a koala for the Australian edit. Meanwhile Moana’s title was changed to Oceania in Italy, due to an unfortunate name-clash with an adult movie actress. The obscurity of these examples are enough to remind us that they’d be damn hard to know about without insider tip-offs. Whether we’re adapting word or image, local experts are the beating heart of any localisation.

Here at Adexchange we’ve flagged a few visual localisation rites of passage to help us all out.

1) Literacy

Pictures often contain words and these still need localising! This can take the form of direct translation, a sensitive rephrase, or even the replacement of words within images. This often happens when an audience speaks different languages, or they can’t read.

A great example of a company thinking they’d nailed this conundrum, when they really hadn’t, is The South African Chamber of Mines. They had a health and safety issue involving rail tracks getting cluttered. Knowing that most employees were illiterate, they created this to solve it:

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Problematically, after the publication of this image, the tracks got more blocked up. The miners were reading right to left, whilst the message relies on being read in the opposite direction. Whoopsie daisy.

Considering literacy doesn’t just mean what our audience can read, but how they read it.

2) Symbols

Dear Reader, let’s vow only to use ISO approved symbols from here on in. The International Organisation for Standardisation offers catalogues of symbols and graphics which are understood universally across cultures. Without these guys, it’s easy to get into hot water fast. For example, we take a picture of a house to mean ‘homepage’ pretty instinctively in the UK. Elsewhere, this could be seen as a ludicrously irrelevant detached 4-bed clogging up a sidebar.  It’s also wise to avoid things such as animals which can have religious significance, or ambiguous body language like the thumbs up or ‘okay’ sign. In some places, it’s not okay.

3) Animals and Analogies

Speaking of animals, trying to tell our customers that they are welcome to take their time browsing our sites by throwing a tortoise and hare picture in every other sidebar, is never going to land. In fact, it will be cryptic and painful. Avoid cute metaphors and be direct.

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4) Colours

Colours can get messy: in Japan white is often associated with mourning, quite a heavy topic, whilst in the west we often see it as a minimalist and tranquil theme. Meanwhile, in Africa, colours can have tribal connotations which immediately get political. Speaking of politics, the mobile phone operator Orange had a bad time trying to set up shop in Northern Ireland thanks to the colour’s association with the troubles. Getting the picture? Like us to stop? Same.

We’re not suggesting that we should live in a world without colour, that would be grim. We’re saying we need to consult local experts of what particular colours signify in our target region, to avoid being too black and white.

5) Human Figures

When hunting for a loo in an hour of need, we’d all be forgiven for scanning for the girl in the skirt or the man in the trousers. But we should diversify from solely binary images in our own content. What with feminism, fluid gender identities and the education that the modern world affords us in general – we need to start asking if binary silhouettes are the best way to represent our customer base.

In a similar vein, a picture of a girl ripping up the surf in a bikini might motivate wetsuit customers in Cornwall or California, but it’d backfire massively in conservative Muslim countries. In Saudi Arabia, Starbucks even edited the mermaid out of their logo. Similarly, an image of a CEO looking quite ‘like a boss’, complete with a headset, pentagon suite and secretary, will irk many egalitarian western audiences, but might well appeal to more deferential cultures.

Humans are the most complex and culturally diverse animals out there, so we need to make them feel individual and relevant to the world’s various markets.

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6) Patterns and Designs

It’s lovely getting excited when our designers present us with an original sketch or graphic. But before we plonk it on our homepage, let’s check their squiggle definitely doesn’t already mean something, somewhere.

Nike learned this lesson the hard way when they launched a pair of leggings featuring a pattern considered sacred to the Maori culture. This was after they’d already released some running shoes whose design had people swearing it resembled the Arabic word for god, Allah.

7) Layouts

If huge chunks of text on our portals, webpages and emails are being translated to different languages, the spacing is going to go haywire at some point. Some simple formatting can save translations from looking really wonky.

8) Emojis

1 billion of us around the world love them, others hate them. Swiftkey actually thought to look into global trends of emojis. It turns out that Arabic speakers use flower and plant emojis four times more than average and Canadians use money emojis twice as much. Meanwhile Americans are the biggest users of LGBT emojis, such as rainbows and same-sex couples. Studying tropes like these can help our agents engage with customers on channels such as live-chat.

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9) Modify

The ultimate localisation lesson is embracing doing it in the first place. A willingness to move away from clumsy language switches and singular images that we hope will be universal, is so important. At the end of the day, someone in the Philippines is highly unlikely to draw from the same pool of cultural reference as someone from Norway. The best way to engage with a local market is to trust linguistic experts who can give us a more intimate understanding of our audiences. These professionals are often native to our target country but, crucially, specialise in cultural differences whether these are written, verbal, aural or visual.


Here at Adexchange we understand that, as contact centre managers, it isn’t our remit to understand every cultural subtlety out there. Our job is to source the experts who do. At Adexchange we always use specialists who work between two respective cultures. If you’re in need of some vital context, we’d love to share this bank of local life-savers with you and get your content as close to your customers as possible.

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About the Author
Megan Tyce
Author: Megan Tyce
Account Manager

Megan joined Adexchange having previously worked in HR (she loves people) and marketing (she’s very creative). Account management gives her the opportunity to shine in both.

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Adexchange Media Limited
Company number: 04344957

The Old Garage, Great Milton, Oxfordshire, OX44 7NP