English isn’t the only language of the heart

18 Feb


This post is intended to answer the question, “If you’re only paying attention to English, how much are you missing?” Its methods work with approximations but the conclusion is very real: you are missing a lot. I’m thinking about globally-focused CMOs and other folks in Marketing but hoping the lessons are even more widely applicable.

If you have an English-first global strategy, you don’t really have a global strategy. That’s probably already apparent to you. But let’s pretend that an English-only strategy might work by multiplying Internet users by GDP per capita. That is, let’s reflect the fact that people in countries have different purchasing power. To get this, I’ll average the latest per-capita GDP data from the IMF, the World Bank, the CIA Factbook, and the UN. The biggest five there are tiny countries: Monaco (whoa, $128,501.30 GDP per capita), Liechtenstein, and Luxembourg. If we multiply GDP per capita by the count of people in the countries with Internet access, then the top countries are:

  • United States
  • China
  • Japan
  • Germany
  • UK

Odds are that if you’re going or have gone global, then these are among your top markets. Notice that you’re already in the realm of a lot of multilingualism. The US has at least 7 languages other than English with more than a million people speaking them at home: 37m Spanish, 2m French/Cajun, 2m Chinese (not subdivided in the census but there are more Cantonese speakers than Mandarin speakers here), 2m Tagalog, 1m German, 1m Korean, 1m Vietnamese. Russian and Arabic are each close to a million US speakers.

In China, there are about 30-some languages with more than a million speakers (the number depends a lot on what you count as a dialect). The biggest are Mandarin, various Wu dialects, and Yue (Cantonese). The World Values Survey attempts to get at a representative sample of people in each country. Of the 3,002 people they interviewed in China most recently, only 10.96% said that they spoken Mandarin at home.

Japan really is Japanese (though they have various dialects), Germany has mostly German dialects and also about 2m Turkish speakers. Like most countries, the UK has a variety of languages but it really is a very English place (place from the Old English plæce and Old French place, ‘open space’, from the Medieval Latin placea from the Latin platēa, ‘broad street’ from the Greek plateia, ‘broad’).

Investing in languages

We can use advertising budgets as a proxy for how much companies are willing to invest in various markets around the world. eMarketer gives information for 22 specific countries and 5 regions. The ratio of ads/Internet GDP ranges from a minimum of 0.58% for “Central and Eastern Europe not including Russia” to a high of 3.81% for Australia. The average is 1.13%, median of 0.85%.

Let’s use this information to look at what a truly global organization would be like. A truly global organization would try to find opportunities across the world. So I run a bunch of simulations where we vary how big/small of an advertising/Internet GDP ratio (we’ll randomize within one standard deviation of the mean). We’ll multiply that by the actual number of Internet users per country and the per capita GDP for 177 nations.

In that case, 26.37% of advertising spending would be allocated to the US, 9.29% to Japan, 8.29% to China, 5.71% to Germany. As a next step, let’s take the top 50 and look at the major languages (those with at least 1m speakers in each country).

From a language perspective, a truly global company should be investing like this:

  • English 33.49%
  • Japanese 9.53%
  • Spanish 8.44%
  • Mandarin 6.33%
  • German 5.6%
  • French 5.58%
  • Portuguese 2.87%
  • Russian 2.62%
  • Korean 2.41%
  • Italian 2.06%

Arabic would be #11 on the list at 1.72% but this could be revised upwards depending upon how you deal with literacy in Standard Arabic versus one of the many spoken varieties. Depending upon what you’re trying to do, you may be fine with Standard Arabic, or you may need to invest specifically in, say, Colloquial Egyptian Arabic.

Fortune 500 marketing budgets tend to range between 9-17% of revenues for those that make >$10b and between 2-9% for those that make <$10b. Let’s randomize the marketing budgets accordingly. And now look at language investments.

Corporations with >$10b of revenue should probably be spending $431m on English-language projects, $123m on Japanese, and so forth—something like $27m on Italian.

The rest of the Fortune 500, who have <$10b of revenue, would be spending about $77m on English-language projects, $22m for Japanese, but still about $5m for Italian.

Obviously, the investment in a market has to do with competitive landscapes and other factors, so your individual company may be making particular pushes, whether in media buys, social listening, or other activities. But odds are that you could be doing a lot more to listen to and speak to customers around the world. The listening part, in particular, hasn’t always been possible. So let us know if you’d like to learn more.

Top 30 languages for marketi (2)

The case for even more diversity

One of the things we’re concerned about here is language diversity. (See our posts on Natural Language Processing for All Languages and Machine Learning for Medicine for more on the importance of this; see Economic Powerhouse Languages for more about under-served languages that represent particular opportunities.)

The majority of people in the world are multilingual. If you don’t happen to be, find some people you know who are. Ask them which language they use to pray, to curse, to scold, to love. When they are muttering under their breath, when they are shoring themselves up to do something tough, when they are talking about relationships that matter, when they are recounting a bad day—which languages do they use?

We have lingua franca languages for the workplace but these aren’t necessarily the languages of our hearts. If you want to listen and communicate with people, the answer may not be the most convenient one. But the fact that it’s not convenient may be exactly why the investment will pay of much greater dividends in terms of genuine insights and connections. We can help.

– Tyler Schnoebelen (@TSchnoebelen)



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