Localizing for the American Market

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The American Dream

Most businesses that wish to expand beyond the borders of their own country have their own American dream. After all, the United States has the wealthiest economy in the world, and is also the third most populous country: Passing through those Golden Arches into the land of plenty is the obvious next step to success and riches.

Or is it?

Most people outside of the US view it somewhat as a land of contradictions: It’s an innovative powerhouse, yet they don’t use the metric system; the US is one of the most linguistically diverse countries, yet nearly 80% of all residents speak only one language; ‘free market’ is the mantra, yet that market is incredibly saturated. This list could go on and on, and it might indeed make entering the US market seem too difficult. Still, we’d like to offer you some tips on how to overcome these cultural hurdles.

To sum up this entire post: you need to localize your website, and all your content, for the American market. Keep reading to learn how.

What is localization?

Localization is, essentially, very important business jargon that means your target audience needs to be able to understand, and identify with…your brand. Who you are. What you are offering them. And naturally the best way to do this is to first understand your target audience.

Localization is also the American spelling of “localisation.” This is one important thing to consider: spelling. Whether you consider British or American spelling as more correct is irrelevant when doing business in the US market, but I should point out that the “-ize” suffix is based on the original Greek suffix, so Americans think it’s more correct, although most Americans would never know about the Greek aspect of any root words. It’s all Greek to them. But not to me, even though I’m American, which is why I’m using the correct (ahem!) American spelling.

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The US has a unique belief system

Whether “belief system” means politics or religion, you should avoid these topics whenever possible. If, for whatever reason, it is not possible to avoid them, then you should say nothing at all, which should be rather easy for Estonians. Not surprisingly, politics and religion have entered the business market in various ways in the past few years. What this means is that a company might support the goals of one political ideal, causing opponents of this ideal to boycott that company’s products. Localizing for the American market, in other words, is likely just as restrictive as localizing for the Chinese market.

Here’s a short list of topics to avoid when localizing for the US:

Insurance would be wise

The US is very fickle about what it allows to be sold. The best example would be guns, and Kinder Surprise eggs: The former are rather easy to obtain, while the latter have been banned because children might swallow the small toys inside. This doesn’t apply to Legos, however. 

If a customer decides to use a product in a dangerous way, despite warnings, courts will still often hold the manufacturer or retailer responsible. In other words, insurance for your business is something you need to research. And if your product or service needs a warning label, get a lawyer to write it.


Focus on one target group or region

Diversity in the US is probably greater than you might imagine, so you need to find the right region for your product or service. For example if you want to sell ice cream in the US, you’ll have better luck for more months of the year in the South or West. If your product is Estonian sausages, you’ll do better in the Midwest. Each region in America has its own specific way of speaking, as well, so you’d be wise to consider hiring someone from that region to write your copy.

Age is yet another factor to keep in mind. Every generation has their own way of speaking, including slang and buzzwords. Today’s teens and twenty-somethings literally say “literally” in almost every sentence, while people in their 30s and up are having to change their vocabulary so as not to risk offending anyone in today’s extremely sensitive climate. Regardless of age, however, Americans tend to be much more prudish than, say, Europeans, when it comes to anything relating to the body. If your product is something used in the toilet, like a cleaning agent, then don’t say “toilet”, use “restroom” (for public toilets) or “bathroom” (at home).

Americans love a good deal

Your prices should always end with “.99”, as in cents. And don’t try to sell them just one item, go for two for the price of one. Use words like “super”, “value”, “extra”, and so on. The call to action in the US is also often more direct than in other countries. “Get yours now!” or “Collect them all!” If you’re selling multiple products, then offer those other products at a discount if the customer makes a purchase.

Here are some other popular calls to action in the US:

*In many parts of Europe, ads show things like “2=1”, meaning that you get two for the price of one. If Americans see this, however, they just think you don’t know basic math.

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Now for the fun stuff

All Americans have to learn the metric system in high school, and almost all Americans try their hardest to forget it after high school. Celsius and meters are as incomprehensible to them as foreign languages. Yet now that many states have legalized marijuana, people are suddenly very familiar with grams. A meter is a hundred centimeters, but a yard is three feet, and a foot is twelve inches. No one in the US would ever say that a yard is thirty-six inches. Ounces? Depends on if you’re using them for weight, or volume (yes, there are two different kinds of ounce).

Even gas is measured differently. In most of the world, it’s how many liters of gas you need to drive 100 kilometers. In the US it’s how many miles you drive with one gallon. In some states, people measure the weight of restaurant food in terms of how long it takes to eat it, while people in other states might actually think for a moment that I’m being serious with this restaurant comment.

Now for one final comment about Americans. Why do Americans call themselves Americans, when Canadians, Mexicans and Costa Ricans are also from “the Americas”, but don’t call themselves “Americans”? Europeans in particular tend to be very critical of this, but the answer is quite simple. The United States of America is the only country name in the Americas that actually contains the word “America”. Would you prefer USers? USians?

Research your product or service in terms of how it would be received by American consumers. Be prepared to change the product itself to match the systems used in the US. Don’t try to understand it: Just accept that Americans have their own way of doing things, and likely will never change.

If you follow this advice as you localize your website, copy, product and service, you’ll have a very good chance at succeeding on the American market!


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