How to Win in India: A Localizer’s Guide on Where to Start

Siobhan Hanna

Siobhan Hanna is managing director of global accounts at Lionbridge. She has held key roles in operations, solutions, and account management across multiple verticals, including artificial intelligence, localization, games, and entertainment.

Siobhan Hanna headshot
Siobhan Hanna headshot

Siobhan Hanna

Siobhan Hanna is managing director of global accounts at Lionbridge. She has held key roles in operations, solutions, and account management across multiple verticals, including artificial intelligence, localization, games, and entertainment.


icture this: your company’s new website is ready to launch. You’ve worked on it for months, everything is good to go, and then the boss tells you the company’s expanding into India. And not just expanding — not dipping its toe into the market for exploratory sales — but full-fledged launching across the whole country. This means you’re now in charge of making sure your product and marketing material are fully localized and coordinated for simultaneous shipment. You’ve never been to India, and don’t really know much about the country, so the first thing you do is hop online. The Indian national census tells you 122 languages are spoken there — 22 of them officially recognized by the constitution — so where do you start?

One good place is with geography. Linguistically, India operates like many other multilingual countries: people tend to live in the same areas as others who also speak their language, meaning those 22 official languages largely divide along regional lines: Gujarati in Gujarat, Assamese in Assam, and so on. Most companies don’t localize for all of them, though, especially not businesses new to the market. Exporters usually start at the top: Hindi, Urdu, and Bengali are the three most widely spoken languages in India, so that’s customarily where they begin. But then your boss says product testing is taking place in the South — and this means Telugu, Kannada, and Tamil. Next thing you know, testing recruiters are asking you to add Marathi, and suddenly there you are, localizing seven languages that might as well feel like 22 because there’s simply so much to manage.

The good news is you’ve already got buy-in. Many localization managers struggle with getting the c-suite to recognize the importance of their work and to increase budgets alongside demand. These managers often must prove translation’s role as a profit driver, as opposed to the cost center less globally minded companies see it as. People don’t buy what they don’t understand. CSA Research reports that 55% of global shoppers won’t purchase from e-commerce websites in languages other than their own. In India, this statistic is staggeringly higher: 90% of shoppers expect full product and marketing localization.

These are the stats localization experts often need to prove their job should exist; to justify the need for translation itself. But, lucky you, your boss is a believer. He’s the one who came to you asking you take on this massive project managing translation for a brand new market of over one billion people. To make this happen, you need a better understanding of the Indian market landscape.

Researching India, you find out that the country is currently the world’s second-largest smartphone market — bigger than the United States in fact. By 2022, Indians will collectively own nearly 700 million smartphones. This quick adoption is due in part to how affordable mobile devices are there. Retailer Flipkart sells 4G phones for 4,499 rupees (roughly $63.54) and up. Data plans are equally low: approximately 26 cents per GB per month, versus $12.37 in the United States, according to newspaper The Times of India. In fact, data’s so cheap in India that the country currently has the highest usage per phone in the world.

These connected consumers are making mobile ecommerce and etransactions at an increasingly accelerated pace over platforms like Flipkart, Snapdeal, Amazon, and Paytm. In a society that’s currently evolving from cash-based to cashless transactions, they also increasingly rely on eWallet apps for completing purchases.

english language users compared to other languages infographic

In terms of translation, it’s essential to keep this mobile-first market in mind. Adaptive design is already best practice for American and European websites, but when localizing for India, user experience (UX) redesign may be required, depending on how your site’s new, target-language user interface looks on a phone. If the original source site is optimized for a different device, you’ll have to plan for additional UX testing.

This is especially important when marketing to younger generations. Sarath Divella, country head for Lionbridge India, says, “When you look at many Indians in the 25-35 age range” — which he calls “the new generation” — “they consume virtually all of their content and conduct transactions via their mobile phone.” But unlike US mobile users, who continue to rely on computers and occasionally tablets for various tasks, Divella explains that young Indian shoppers “don’t fit the stereotype of people who own lots of devices. They often have one device and one only: their mobile phone, having completely skipped over the whole idea of owning a physical desktop or laptop computer.”

This generation has become a buying class of its own. Around 440 million Millennials (born between the 1981 and 1996) live in India currently, and by 2030, 77% of all Indians will be either Millennials or Generation Z (born after 1996). As a societal group, they are voracious consumers not just of the web, but also social media. For Millennials in particular, internet and social are where they get purchase-driving information. This tech savviness doesn’t just dictate how optimized your company website will need to be for mobile, but it also affects the marketing message itself. With a world of information in the palm of their hands, Indian Millennials are shrewd, knowledgeable buyers who are quick to figure out what they want and whether that’s what your company actually has to offer.

Accordingly, Divella says they buy “based on functionality. They’re not status-conscious customers who are trying to show off or display their watch, phone, or any other items. They’re people who need the function of the product and then use it.” While he adds that this is “a very practical way to buy,” it’s also problematic if your current marketing strategy is built around looking cool or keeping up with the Joneses. In order to resonate with this astute and discriminating demographic, content of this nature will require localization rather than simple translation, or, in some instances, complete transcreation. Taking a look at population by age group for each state — as well as that region’s mobile adaption rates — will help you determine which services are needed. The more connected the consumer base, the more likely they are to make educated purchases, which won’t come from “don’t you wanna be cool” style marketing. Statistically, connected consumers are also more likely to upgrade to premium products and to demonstrate brand loyalty, not just in India, but everywhere: post-sales language access influences 74% of global consumers’ buying decisions. This brand loyalty will dictate what content needs to be translated post-launch so the company can foster repeat clients.

Because Indian consumers are so particular, you’re forced to ask yourself a fundamental question: if they can’t count on your company to give them information in their own languages, will they turn to competitors who can? Despite what misconceptions tell you, India is not an English-first country; this is leftover, colonial thinking that simply isn’t true. In fact, only 10% of residents speak the language fluently — and, even then, it’s typically a second or third language. So as stressful as launching in so many languages sounds, the increase your company will see in sales makes it worth it. India may have a multiplicity of official languages, but for you, the right localization strategy — and deployment — is singularly possible