Localization – Do You Know the Dutch?

Late last year, I was on a business trip to do a keynote speech Amsterdam. Over dinner the night before I was asked a really interesting question – ‘Do you know the Dutch?’

Notice the ‘the’ in the question, I was not being asked if I knew the language, but if I knew the people, the culture and what to expect of my audience the next day. I’ve been meaning to blog about this since.

If you don’t know our geography, as the crow flies Amsterdam is closer to London than many of the cities in the north of England. By the time the flight attendant has dished out the peanuts, you are belting in for descent. It’s a few hundred miles. Yet, as we both observed in that conversation, it’s more than language or a stretch of water that separates us.

I am no anthropologist (and I needed the spell checker to spell it) , so I won’t be delving into our differences in any informed way. Aside from the group I was with all being so bloody tall, the Dutch confess to being more direct in business and are proud of the untranslatable notion of gezellig – something my Dutch friends tell me I cannot understand. In short, we are different – and for me to speak in their language would not make me Dutch.

Similarly if I walk into an Irish bar, there are subtle differences in how that transaction is going to go if this bar is in London or New York, the tipping culture, the service, the assumption you’ll be running a tab etc. Same transaction, same language (sort of) but tiny little wrinkles that could upset a social situation or be ruinous in a business negotiation.

OK. Occasionally I feel I am stating the bleedin’ obvious on this blog, but noticing people are different or that you need to tip in New York is a new low – even for me. So, why was that question so interesting to me – a web content management guy that rambles on about engagement? Or possibly more importantly why you might be interested?

Well, I could talk about how I have worked with a number of international, multi-geo, multi-product companies that think that central replication and translation is the way to the heart of the local consumer. The perception that there is no difference between localization and translation. In some organizations this is actually more about the way they provision websites – that tools and content become melded and delivered together as a central service, rather than a centrally provided platform that enables local marketers to fill in the content. I’ve talked about this before in On Shanty Towns, Bulldozers, Cats and Website Consolidation…

Maybe I could point out that for web engagement, as we strive to get to know our audience more intimately, those ‘tiny wrinkles’ are going to pop right out, as our websites put their arm round the shoulder of our visitors and insist on calling everyone ‘mate’ (or whatever social faux-par throws your hackles up).

The real truth for writing this is that the question resonated with me and I wanted to share it. It’s not new or particularly insightful. I thought it simply encapsulated the concept of localization.

Do you know the Dutch.


Photo of the tulip field by Julie Markee is reproduced under Creative Commons and thank you Bart Heilbron for asking me the question and inspiring this post.

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14 thoughts on “Localization – Do You Know the Dutch?

  1. Localisation (note the ‘localised’ and correct spelling of the word 😉 ) is another over-hyped aspect of Web Content Management which is a useful way for CMS vendors to differentiate themselves from the masses. It’s a shrewd one for vendors to latch onto though as they know that in a lot of international organisations that don’t have the maturity of the massive global operators like IBM, the management uses the ‘idea’ of localisation as a great way to maintain their internal empires. Quite often, these efforts at localisation are neither efficient or effective but make the managers feel much better about themselves.

    Will you be doing a review of SDL Tridion’s new offering following your visit today? I see they couldn’t resist the urge to jump onto the ‘engagement’ bandwagon and it will be interesting to see their take on this from a globalisation/localisation viewpoint.

  2. Great blog! It emphasizes not only the importance for good localization but also the need for local implementation offices that understand the culture of an organization in that specific region. It is not only a trick of translating the content, but also understanding the specific needs of the local clients. Nevertheless, there should be a good balance between localization and global identity. A challenging marketing strategy…;-)

  3. Thank you so much for posting this!

    I am an American who has lived in Holland for almost 18 years. As owner of Native Content & Communications, I am not only about providing English content and communications. I am about engaging with your audience by speaking their cultural language. The core of my philosophy is that you must truly understand the source message – and the culture from which it comes – as well as the target message, and particularly the ears and eyes of the culture you are communicating to.

    This is the essence of Engagement, be it between Dutch and English, between corporations and their clients or be it between brands and communities.

  4. Godemorgen (good morning in Dutch). No, I’m not fluent in Dutch but worked for Philips NV in Silicon Valley earlier in my career and was able to pick up some terms, mindsets and culture along the way. Of course, Philips is based in Eindhoven the Neatherlands.

    I like your point of view in this post. Not everyone has the opportunity to work at a multinational company. I prefer this because it helps one to create a “world view” that is certainly useful and relevant in today’s global business environment. Of course there are tools to help with localization for business but I believe it starts with thinking, acting and feeling with a world view — all the time to support business decisions and 21st century living in general.

  5. Thanks all for your comments, apologies for not getting to them sooner.


    The misspelling, I guess I am so used to localizing my content for Americans!

    I am not as convinced that “over-hyped” is how I would describe localisation. Beside being asked a question that I found inspirational – this post was written from the perspective of recent experience of working with an industry client in the US, where this the practical implementation was a real business challenge for them – as we interviewed marketers and e-business folks in their local countries.

    This wasn’t about tools or hype, but about the practical realization that this thinking needed to be woven into their web engagement strategy.

    I think this division of enabling platform and what you do with it – call it web engagement strategy, web strategy, content strategy or simply ‘give me a website’ – is at the heart of content management, the ability for a local marketer to present their organization in a relevant, contextual manner based on local language and culture is one example.

    I’m sorry, I am not going to enter into the debate over the validity of ‘engagement’ again with you. I think we know where we stand on that and I clearly don’t believe it to be a bandwagon, whoever is jumping on it.

    Bart, Erick, Sara – Thanks for your input and sharing your experience, I am glad the post resonated with you.




  6. Good points Ian. I’ve visited The Netherlands quite a bit over the years through pleasure and business and have had quite a few Dutch colleagues too over the years. I love The Netherlands and I admire the Dutch but I have to say that my experiences in global roles in recent years have placed them in a category of being ‘even more awkward than the French’. There comes a point in any globalisation/ localisation challenge when no matter how much you empower the country teams to manage their own content it will never be enough and simply the idea that the ‘central’ team has some level of control and oversight of what and how they are doing things will have them demanding full autonomy and find them off relentlessly and unnecessarily duplicating effort and content again. The reason I cited IBM in my previous comment is that it celebrates its 100th anniversary this year and it attributes a lot of its longevity and continued success in a very cut-throat environment to being able to identify and use the commonality between different peoples and cultures rather than the differences and therefore break-down the inefficiencies that arise from creating siloed operations and approaches in each country.

    1. Nice IBM reference James – agree that same/different balance is essential. I too have seen engagements where competing divisions think they are all different and you are right, there is actually an awful lot of commonality and that is where the web operations efficiencies can be gained. But, when it comes to subtlety of application of this stuff, the message being delivered, you need to be local.

  7. Ian thank you for this very insightful post. I think this is a challenge all of us who work in international, multi-lingual environments face on a daily basis. It is all about giving folks the tools they need to connect or engage with their local audience. Further to this, I like what you wrote in your comment as well about “the ability for a local marketer to present their organization in a relevant, contextual manner based on local lanugage and culture.” This begs a broader discussion about the important role of context in the online consumer experience. It goes beyond just communicating in a local language to delivering a customized experience that is more meaningful because you are coming closer to giving a customer what she/he wants. Then the question becomes: Do you know the Dutch and can you give them what they want online? 😉

  8. RT @IanTruscott: Some nice comments on my post about web localization – some say hype, some essential, others it’s people & process.. ht …

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