Multilanguage management: US style vs. European style

Managing content in multiple languages is usually very difficult, and the more languages you have, the more difficult it usually gets. That said, there are two clearly different ‘schools of thought’ in managing multiple languages. From my experience, there are the ‘US style’ and the ‘European style’. The difference is not always very clear, and many big corporations actually apply both styles – sometimes at the same time.

Typically, most clients tend to fall in either of these categories. As consultants this is something we at times have to be hard to the client. Clients have to choose which style is closer to their requirements – at least on a regional level.

So what are we talking about?

US style is the approach where you clearly have one master language, usually English. In US style your main concern is whether all different regions and languages follow the master language. This is the approach that many truly global brands tend to take. Consumer electronics brands are good examples. They don’t want too much regional variance, they want everything to be very unified – following the ‘big brand book’. Having central control over updates and workflow is usually very important for organizations that follow the US style.

Government organizations usually also tend to follow the US style even though they might not have the resources to translate everything 1:1. But they do want a centralized view where they can see which languages are 100% translated and which languages only partly.

The European style, on the other hand, does not care so much whether all language versions are identical. Actually it might even be encouraged that different languages and regional versions are different from the master language. This makes a lot of sense especially for brands that operate in different countries and have to adapt to different local environments. For example, if you sell sports equipment all around Europe, you probably want to have a campaign for different products in Sweden and Spain during winter.

From my experience, surprisingly many brands actually need to adapt to different regions, and often you have local marketing people who need truly good tools to adapt the marketing campaign and the product pages to suit local weather conditions or cultural differences. In European style, it is usually most important to be able to offer templates and media assets centrally so that local editors can use those and adapt them to their needs. Sometimes you need to be able to do the same also to content items, so that local editors can use the content items as inspiration or as templates for their own writing.

The difficult thing is that supporting both of these approaches at the same time is truly a challenging issue – even though most vendors will happily claim that they can do it…

The biggest question regarding multilanguage management requirements, therefore, is how much US-style requirements and how much European-style requirements the client has. Big corporations typically have requirements on both sides, and then the question arises which are more important in which regions or product areas?

This question is also critical because some web content management systems are much more suitable for the US style than the European style. I believe the classic (bad) example, at least in Europe, tends to be SharePoint which doesn’t really understand the European style at all. On the other hand, some systems are clearly designed to support the European style much more than others, EPiServer being an example of this.

And then you naturally have systems like Drupal that are suitable for any approach you have – if you just have enough money to customize it the way you like it.

Sitecore is an example of a similar approach. But even though the system supports different approaches, it usually isn’t cheap. Commercial products have their strengths in many areas, but truly complex multilanguage management is rarely one of them.

Even after a good due diligence process, you might not find a perfect system for your needs. Multilanguage management simply is a pretty complicated matter. (I wish I could be more positive about this!)

Again, there are great systems out there that have a lot of clever tricks up their sleeves. Finding the right one just requires that you really, really decide which camp you belong to.

Are you US-style or European-style?

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5 thoughts on “Multilanguage management: US style vs. European style

  1. Hi Perrtu,

    a nice post (as usual) but let me throw my* perspective at the ‘multilingual website’ subject which is rather “website” style versus “e-commerce” style. Let me give a short explanation:

    – it is frequently required for typical website projects (at least by our clients here) , that a user can switch from any page in any language to the ‘same’ page in any different language (you call this US style?). And yes, there may be a ‘default’ language needed as a fallback.
    Why do our clients want this? It is clearly a benefit, when guys like us (like you from Finnland or me from Germany) who just found a higly interesting page (e.g. in the English language) can switch to their native language and stay on the ‘same’ page. Even when the content on the localized page varies slightly (e.g. culturally acceptable images) it should be semantically the ‘same’ page. So my criteria for ‘sameness’ in website style would be, that a ‘same’ page serves the ‘same’ intent within the site structure, even when it looks different at first glance. From a technical perspective we usually solve this by nodes which carry different local pages (or ‘sheets’).

    – the product catalog determines most of the site structure of a typical e-commerce site, i. e what we would call ‘the navigation’ on a typical websites. As product catalogs vary from country to country – the same retailer may be offering different product ranges in different countries, and/or the same product may be assigned to different product categories in different countries – their will be (often) no 1:1 representation of alike pages in the navigational structure (you call that European style?). From a technical perspective we usually solve this by different nodes for different locales.

    – Something special with the ‘e-commerce’ style is, that a national commerce site in multilingual countries (e.g. Switzerland, Belgium, Luxemburg, …) may in itself be ‘website’ style. The catalog may be different e.g. between France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. But in Belgium you’ll end up with one single catalog which is shared between one part of the population which prefers the French language, and another part of the population which prefers the Dutch language.

    In the end the multilingual puzzle boils down to getting the site navigation requirements right: Do you prefer to strictly enforce the same structure for all locales, do you prefer to allow different structures for different locales, or do you prefer a hybrid approach between the two extremes?

    Just my 0,02 € – enjoy the summer!
    Regards, Bernd

    *Disclaimer: I’m head of the ‘CMS transformation’ branch at getit GmbH, which has a strong focus on omnichannel transformation consulting for large retailers

  2. Thanks Bernd for the comment! I agree that eCommerce is slightly different beast, although it has the same basic challenges. Just like you describe, eCommerce is often European style on European level (different countries have different product selections), but US-style on country level (same products, just different content language). This is actually pretty typical setup for many big brands that operate on European level.

    It also depends whether the organization has a PIM system (product information management system) or not – or how mature/important the PIM is for their business. Often the product information management model is planned as a separate structure. For example marketing might be very local (or not), but product information must come from the centralized PIM system. And then you might even end up with a hybrid-mixed model (or something…) :) Not the way you want to do it usually – but sometimes you don’t have a choice.

    I hope you have a great summer in Germany also!

  3. What a great story and great comments. As a buyer of CMS I have always been into the US-style – but reading this give me new perspective. As we have communication departments in different Nordic countries I’m sure we will end up in a discussion. For the time being at least we have the US-style – but further down the road I think we will end up with the European style. Working in a B2B environment with no PIM system.

  4. Thank you, Trude! It is surprisingly typical to see organisations using US-style and then complaining that local marketing teams do independent campaign websites. If the approach had been European style from the beginning, that doesn’t happen so easily.

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