Off the Map: Considerations in product distribution

As localization professionals, one of the things we know well is the complexity of international distribution. This is from the perspective of not only the logistics of shipping from one country to another and dealing with various export/import controls, but also with the marketing campaigns, roll-out schedules and everything they entail. All of this makes shipping a product a significant challenge, even before the additional complexities of localizing the content are added to the equation.

Over the years, as the globalization of business and the associated localization of content have become the norm, the content being delivered is influenced by various obstacles. These can range in type and scope, but often include governmental, linguistic and other cultural factors, some of which are overt and some quite subtle. Whatever the root causes of these obstructions, the typical reaction of the local, target consumer is to form a perception that your company is somehow being biased, exclusionary or simply internationally incompetent. So let’s take a closer look at some of these dimensions that can cause notable impacts to content distribution.

Probably one of the most obvious influences on international content distribution is the element of national government. Since we live in a world of boundaries and many different legal jurisdictions, we naturally must deal with local governments and the host of rules and regulations that govern the import and export of products of all varieties.

Now this is the point at which I need to interject a standard caveat regarding the form of the content products. Many in the world of IT and software have long been used to the notion of sending a piece of physical media through the shipping process involving customs, clearances and so on. The world of physical media still exists but is declining rapidly for mainstream content consumers and it’s likely that physical media such as CDs and DVDs will become nostalgic specialty items rather than the norm. With the growth of “cloud” data and content services, the ability to regulate across borders becomes significantly more challenging for local governments. But as much as we realize that digital content flows between, through, over and under boundaries, the reality of that nearly unrestricted flow doesn’t absolve a company of the responsibility for its content and how it impacts a locality.

Most governments maintain some form of total or near total control of the distribution of physical content within their boundaries. The existence of gray and black markets is a given in many locales and through which essentially anything can be obtained, and the juxtaposition couldn’t be starker in some geographies. For example, the Chinese government has some of the most restrictive content standards of any nation, while at the same time having tremendously high piracy rates of digital content. So even though a product with questionable (or even outright offensive) content may be obtainable within a country’s borders, the local government can impose restrictions on the business of origin, such as permanently restricting sales of the offending product or even shutting down the company’s local operations. Many companies expend a great deal of time and money to forge a cooperative relationship with local governments so that any potential problems can be managed in the context of a partnership.

However, depending on the offense, there is no guarantee that any amount of business diplomacy will prevent the consequences of a problematic piece of content. For some locales in particular, such as China, there’s not only no guarantee but also a high degree of unpredictability in terms of how one government official might react to something compared to a different official. One serious event can seriously damage a business’ government relations and in some cases dissolve it entirely. So it’s critical to respect the authority that governments have over their marketplace. This doesn’t mean a company has to be complacent and perform content changes that are counter to its corporate values, but it does mean a company may have to make crucial choices about where it should and shouldn’t release its products.

So let’s say that you have a product you wish to send to a particular market, and you made an attempt but found that your product doesn’t comply with some government requirement. Instead of changing your product entirely to meet that government’s expectations, you opt to distribute to an adjacent market in the region where that regulation doesn’t exist and perhaps the localization doesn’t even need to change. Herein lies the problem: from the consumers’ point of view in the first intended market, you’ve opted to avoid them in favor of their neighbors, thus creating a perception of distribution inequity. They are not likely to realize the reasons why you had to change your plans, which were mostly out of your control, and it’s quite often the case that the citizens aren’t fully aware of their own government’s import regulations.

Beyond the government dimension, how else might this perception of inequity arise? Linguistic parity is often another factor that raises concerns between one market and another, particularly those with sensitive regional dynamics. In today’s connected world, it’s not as if consumers in one market aren’t aware of a product’s release in another market. Between most locales, this isn’t a major issue, but in culturally sensitive areas of the world, it can become a potential problem. One example that’s arisen in the past was the need to ensure that both Arabic and Hebrew versions of a software product were made available to Israeli and Arab markets on the same launch day. This approach was not only considered to be fair but it was done to avoid reinforcing a perception that one culture was being consistently favored over another. In such cases, a company might be able to explain that the language launches were dependent on localization resources, but such business-focused rationales are often viewed as weak excuses.

Besides the role of language localization in preventing distribution, a wide range of cultural issues can also provide a reason for why one locale will receive the content and another will not. Sometimes there’s just no possibility of making a piece of content work across all regions because of the nature of its subject matter. If it touches upon some of the riskier themes such as historical facts, ethnicity, nationality, religious issues, cultural biases and geopolitical perceptions (such as the use of maps), it’s quite possible that no level of revision or reconciliation is going to make your content seem equitable to all consumers. This implies then that companies should at least be careful in how they market their products globally, and when they should be sure to set proper expectations on where and when it will be available.

The geopolitical and cultural differences between various markets are key reasons for the appearance of inequitable distribution, and as such, they add an additional layer of complexity for companies that wish to distribute internationally. We need to be keenly aware of government guidelines, whether the content is on physical media or in the cloud, but more importantly we need to be ready to be strategic about how, when and where our content is distributed. The consumers’ perception of inequity isn’t easy to overcome, except by eventually providing to them what they’re expecting, but then this must be weighed carefully against a company’s global strategy and, of course, expenses.