Cross-cultural content – writing for a North American audience

The most successful international brands are masters at staying true to their core values, while modifying themselves to reflect local …

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The most successful international brands are masters at staying true to their core values, while modifying themselves to reflect local culture. Think McDonald’s and its Indian menu devoid of any beef or pork, or Starbucks and their locally designed stores. The same idea applies to cross-cultural content creation. Large, multiple market corporations are naturally at an advantage, as they’ll have local employees take care of country specific marketing.

If you’re an SME, you probably only write for your home market audience, but the internet (and your content) is out there for the world to see. And even if your business itself remains single market, you may well have to cater to international audiences at some point. Companies in tourism and hospitality are good examples of this, as they need to market toward an international demographic, which means their content also needs to resonate with a global audience.

In honour of both Canada Day (1st July) and Independence Day (4th July) this week, I’m going to focus on writing for a North American audience (minus Mexico – sorry, amigos).

Countries divided by a common language

Of course there are differences in the English language, and while the first thing you should do when writing for a Canadian or American audience is set your spell check to that country’s version of English (yes, there are differences in Canadian and American spelling), and brush up on your trunks versus boots, you’ll also need to delve deeper into the culture for which you’re writing.

You get better engagement from informal writing, and we’re often told to write the way we speak.

But this presents a problem, not just because many colloquialisms don’t translate, but because we need to consider that so much of our culture is reflected in our everyday speech, from use of the passive voice versus the active voice to the way we promote ourselves (or don’t promote ourselves).

Put away that humble pie

Brits are the original humble-braggers. Long before humble-braggery invaded social media, British companies were promoting themselves with copy like ‘we think we’re pretty great’, the subtext being ‘we know we’re the best, but we’re too polite to say so directly’. It works a charm in the UK, where people pick up on the subtleties and appreciate the courtesy. But if you’re writing copy for an American audience, you’ll have to be bolder and more direct. Go big or go home.

Take these two comparable department stores for example: John Lewis ‘Never knowingly undersold’ and Macy’s ‘The magic of Macy’s’. The British department store’s slogan gives a quiet sense of reliability, while the American store implies that their shopping is a life-changing experience.

When writing content for an American audience, make sure you’re direct and to the point, even if it sounds pushy to your ears (you can dial it back a little for Canada).

Remember, all the other content created for that audience is just as brash. Don’t let yours go unnoticed because you’re not ‘yelling’ loud enough.

Regional differences

Canada and the US are huge countries with vast regional differences, so it’s good to keep this in mind when choosing topics and style. Depending on exactly whom you’re writing for, you might want to tailor your writing to a particular region, whether it’s West Coast cool, prairie friendliness or hipster Toronto.

Two distinct countries

Because they’ve got more in common than not, people tend to lump Canadians and Americans together when creating content. To be completely honest, your American audience isn’t likely to notice if you serve them Canadianised content. I wouldn’t attempt it the other way around, though. Canadians tend to be a little… touchy when it comes to being thought of as Americans.

As always, avoid stereotyping, and don’t worry if you slip a little and let your Queen’s English show. Your readers will be smart enough to figure it out, even if they have to Google a ‘fortnight’.

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