When Oscar Wilde quipped in his 1887 short story The Canterville Ghost, “We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language,” he was definitely onto something. The differences between British (UK) and American English, however small they appear to nonnative speakers, stand out to natives on either side of the pond.
Despite a few centuries of these gradually evolving variants, the languages never diverged too much, and UK and US English remain siblings. So how much do these differences justify localizing or customizing content, products and services for the UK market?
Thanks to globalization and the proliferation of American culture, language and products, what gets produced in the United States is perfectly understandable to just about anyone in the United Kingdom. After all, aren’t they all avid consumers of cult series such as Friends, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad?
Nevertheless, when it comes to purchase decisions or using everyday products, people want to be served in their own language. In an age of hyper-personalized content and products customized to individual tastes and preferences, appropriate language isn’t simply preferred, it’s expected.
In localization, sibling variants are an obvious advantage, but they’re also a trap: never assume that what works in the United States will automatically resonate in the United Kingdom. The process may differ, but localizing your product, service or content for the United Kingdom is effectively the same as localizing for France or Germany: each is a distinctive market and audience. Note how Netflix recreated the UK House of Cards for the US market, and how the BBC recreated The Apprentice from its US original.
Large US companies initiated the current surge in demand for customizing content for UK audiences, but mid- and smaller-size US companies quickly joined in the rush to crack the UK market.
Yet not every company requires full-blown customization for an effective UK strategy. Consumer sectors, retail and regulated industries such as life sciences are leading the trend, but business-to-business companies may not yield the same high returns on the UK localization effort.
Shared language and cultural affinity are commonly why US companies tend to establish their first European presence in the United Kingdom or Ireland. However, the consumer mindsets are hardly carbon copies.
When marketing in the United Kingdom, US companies ought to carefully review and often update their user personas — the representations of their different user types — from the US to the UK market. UK-based research and focus groups reveal important cultural and behavioral differences that justify using country-specific personas that ultimately affect UK English approach and content.
For example, Amazon not only customizes its UK site with British English, but it also personalizes interactions with customers registered via Amazon.co.uk across various channels — web, e-mails or online advertising — using vast data on consumers and their purchasing habits.
For companies struggling to do this US-to-UK product transfer correctly, a “customer development” approach popularized by lean start-ups may improve results: launch something in the United Kingdom, measure how local users react, gauge their interest, learn from the results and start again until you get your local approach right.
What gets adapted
UK English customization efforts should prioritize content that drives demand, followed by the actual product. The value of localizing post-sale content like product documentation is debatable, but worthwhile if support quality drives sales. It makes sense to customize, or “transcreate,” the highly visible elements of marketing communication and advertising for the UK audience. Well beyond simple linguistic translation, transcreation is about adapting or transforming a concept or an idea to suit the culture: reinventing imagery, examples, metaphors and humor to increase cultural relevance.
While the message may change, by maintaining fidelity to the brand’s vibe, look and feel, you can deliver a campaign piece with the same impact as the original. Typically, US companies apply transcreation to all aspects of their campaigns such as taglines, product names, web, flyers and multimedia, sometimes selecting local brand ambassadors to represent their local brand in the UK market.
For example, the American chain Pizza Hut has recently signed popular English comedian and presenter Paddy McGuinness as brand ambassador, while Gillette made no mistake hiring the English rugby star Jonny Wilkinson to do the same for its brand.
Transcreation is an opportunity to position a company or product creatively, and even differently, from the original US approach. What may be a mainstream product or service on the US market can become a premier offering in the United Kingdom and elsewhere — consider America’s blue-collar beers that acquire upscale appeal as imports in the United Kingdom. Their brand language obviously needs to reflect that shift.
After brand transcreation, websites are the next priority. Add locally-produced content specific to the UK market on the much-appreciated co.uk domain. Even if the local UK website content doesn’t differ much, it always makes sense to localize your search engine optimization approach for the United Kingdom, using terms and keywords specific to that market. Ideally, companies should also open UK-specific social media channels to speak to the new audience. Last but not least, contact options like online forms need to be enabled for the UK market’s addresses, telephone number formats and currency.
Customizing large portions of software user interface, user assistance or web content for the UK market may seem daunting and expensive, given the relatively few changes ultimately required. However, there are machine translation tools that will automatically replace specific US terms with their British English equivalents. A UK English style guide and a conversion table are invaluable tools. A conversion table, used for automatic replacement, will contain US terms and their UK English equivalents in various word forms such as plurals, verb endings, gerunds and so forth.
Some of these automated changes are relatively risk-free and generally reliable. These include orthographic changes, most importantly spelling, but also elements such as hyphenation or capitalization.
Others are less certain. You can make the replacements automatically and flag them for a review, or flag them as a potential change that will need a human judgment, such as fall vs. autumn or program vs. programme. As a rule, the next steps should include a review process where the proofreader can verify these three types of changes, and make others based on the UK English style guide.
Many books ranging in style from academic to humor enumerate the differences between US and British English, and many a PhD has been earned on this topic. In practice, focusing on a few key areas can deliver the feel of content authored in UK English.
Spelling is the most visible and most easily automated adjustment. Below are the most important spelling variants between US and UK English. These form most of the terms in a typical conversion table used for automatic replacements:
-ize to –ise (as in localise)
–ization to –isation (as in
-yze to –yse (as in analyse)
-og to –ogue (as in catalogue)
-er to –re (as in centre)
-or to –our (as in favourite)
-l to –ll (as in travelling)
-m to –mme (as in programme)
There are some important differences in punctuation between these two language variants. While not as important or religiously upheld as spelling, correct punctuation will enhance the perceived “Britishness” of the adapted content. Some of these changes can be automated, but many will require a human review to make sure they are applied appropriately, since their use is often situational.
For instance, in UK English, there should normally be no comma before the final and or or in list-type constructions, such as in a series of three or more terms, unless it is necessary to avoid ambiguity. Sometimes mandatory in US English, the serial comma — oddly enough, known as “the Oxford comma” — is the Oxford University Press style manual’s preference for UK English as well, but that hardly matters to the Brits.
Also, while in US English punctuation marks such as periods and commas are placed inside the quotation marks, in UK English they should go outside the quotation marks (as in “Save now”.).
UK English prefers hyphens in places where US English does not. This applies to cases where compound modifiers precede the noun, as in third-party applications. UK English will also often prefer hyphens in writing compound nouns, as in mock-up, where US English would use mockup, but even in UK English the trend is toward using fewer hyphens than was the case in the past. In a similar vein, US English prefers using em dashes, or sometimes two en dashes, unlike British English, which always favors using a single en dash. Many of these changes can be automatically applied to an original US English text, but many will need a reviewer.
Finally, when splitting words at the end of a line, the UK English standard will often place hyphens at morphological breaks, whereas US English will support placing hyphens at syllable breaks.
Grammar differences between the two English variants are many but mostly small, and typically would not result in misunderstanding. However, in content designed to appear truly local, they always need to be corrected. For instance, UK English still retains more irregular plurals than American English does today. UK English prefers using the present perfect to talk about recent past events, while American English often uses simple past tense.
As for vocabulary, some Brits lament the use of American words among their compatriots as evidence of declining standards; meanwhile, Americans run the risk of sounding pretentious when they adopt Briticisms. This underscores the importance of using the correct British English vocabulary when adapting content for the UK market.
Of course, each language variant has evolved terms that have not yet crossed the pond, and some common words have distinct usages or meanings in each country. Still others are welcomed as alternative expressions, such as the British to go missing (meaning to disappear), ginger (to describe red hair; this potentially has to do with the publication of Harry Potter books in the United States, where this term was preserved), or sell-by date (meaning expiration, especially in a figurative sense).
As a result, it’s not a good idea to depend entirely upon automated replacements. High-quality translations need to be reviewed by a proofreader, since they are often contextual and situational.
Style is potentially the most preference-ridden area when adapting content for the UK market. While most style guides will contain some important UK English stylistic guidelines, much will depend on the proofreader’s judgment. In general, if the source US English phrases sound awkward or incorrect in UK English, or it is simply not a way British people would speak, they should be modified. American English style may be more direct, explicit, more egalitarian, empowering and perhaps more individualistic than is the case of British English. It may also contain more interjections or over-zealous phrases that may need to be toned down to better align with British UK usage.
There is a general trend toward using less formal, conversational language in many types of products and content today — one that uses idioms, metaphors and colloquialisms. Such a language, however, tends to be more culture-specific, which increases the need to adapt US content for the UK audience. US-specific idioms or colloquialisms need to be replaced with their UK equivalents, and this process cannot be effectively automated.
Additionally, content authors are often encouraged to develop internationalized, neutral English content that will work equally well across all countries and cultures. At the same time, brand marketers strive to provide consumers with engaging content that speaks to both hearts and minds.
Incorporating local culture, such as sports, holidays and education, into the neutral content is a great way to increase content “stickiness.” For instance, references to American football, baseball or basketball will not resonate well with UK audiences, and should be converted to refer to soccer, cricket or rugby. So will any metaphors based on these sports. Thus, phrases such as touch base or step up to the plate, while understandable to British audiences, should be changed to their UK equivalents. In many cases, these cultural transfers will also include changes to graphics and designs.
Let’s look at an American Express advertisement and how this obviously American brand goes about creating successful campaigns in the UK and across Europe. The ad in Figure 1 is from the series Realise the Potential, developed by Ogilvy & Mather, and loosely modeled on the North American Realize the Potential and Shop Small campaigns. Building on the quintessentially British concept of High Street (equivalent of Main Street in the United States), the ad conjures the English nursery rhyme Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub (“The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker”), which is familiar to most Brits from childhood, but which hasn’t been common knowledge in the US for decades. By evoking traditional elements of British culture, the company aims to portray itself as very local, embedded in Britain and supportive of the country.
Nest Labs is another good example. The high-profile “Internet of Things” manufacturer of intelligent thermostats and smoke detectors, recently acquired by Google, has done a great job adapting its flagship product and related marketing for the UK. Check out the subtle differences in text accompanying the images used in both US and UK markets (Figure 2).
Between shrinking attention spans and consumer preferences for multimedia over text, more companies are looking to prepare British-specific versions of their multimedia content, and multimedia is the ultimate frontier — offering room to play with all the cultural and stylistic variations between the United States and the United Kingdom.
You can choose audio talent with specific accents for voiceovers, or include UK-specific footage that appeals to local audiences very precisely and evokes specific emotions. But that can quickly drive up costs of an adaptation project. Large companies limit scope by recreating only their critical multimedia such as online advertising, often starting effectively from scratch, or with a high level of transcreation involved. Lower-priority videos may be left in the source US English.
Adapting US English for UK audiences may not be how you planned to spend a tight localization budget, but there are a number of scenarios where the returns vastly outweigh the investment in the form of competitive advantages, better brand positioning and increased customer loyalty. The return on investment is even higher when a high level of automation can help drive down the costs. As a result, we should expect to see more global products and services adapted for the UK market and appearing as truly local.