English is probably the most widely understood language on Earth; even those who don’t speak it recognise one or two words, and vast numbers know enough to get by. Yet there are many reasons a business might want to employ localization, beyond merely the need to be understood: our languages are often an integral part of our identity. It might be more efficient if everybody spoke English, just as it might be more efficient for everyone to wear identical grey jump-suits; the first is a vision of dystopia for the same reason as the second.
Yet there are clearly limits to this: while it is common to translate from Spanish to English, it is less common to translate into national languages like Welsh, Irish or Cornish, which have few speakers – and none who do not speak another language. And although a webpage might be localised into German, most businesses would never think of developing individual versions in mutually intelligible dialects like Bavarian or Swabian, any more than a London-based company would consider localising their materials in Mancunian or Yorkshire versions.
The fact remains that 10% of the population of the EU – over 55 million people – still speak a regional, minority or endangered language. So could hyper-localization give brands more of a competitive edge in future?
In Ireland, where the native Irish tongue has been classified by UNESCO as ‘definitely endangered’: there has been increasing momentum behind the language’s use in business, and it has become a USP globally, not only within Ireland. Irish branding not only helps brands stand out from the crowd, but also appears to create goodwill out of proportion to the size of the ‘Gaeltacht’ Irish-speaking population, promoting customer awareness and brand loyalty.
Use of minority languages can be particularly valuable in the food industry: the first ever Cornish language TV advert, for ice-cream, aired in 2016, and Welsh is increasingly successful in selling cheese and other premium products. There are clear indicators that this sort of marketing could extend to other, more unexpected sectors, however: a popular UK broadband provider, PlusNet, has based its marketing on a regional identity for years, and it is well known (for example) that certain accents like Geordie are considered ‘more friendly’ than others.
It could be that in a few years, more localization will be highly specific, following the trend away from use of ‘standard’ languages, with translators offering English (West Country) alongside English (UK) and (US). We’ll be watching to wait and see!