As multi-national and independent entrepreneur lead cosmetics brands look to expand their presence into international markets, it is critical for brand managers to carefully consider the language and traditions of their targeted market to maintain brand DNA throughout its entire communication strategy. In this edition of In Conversation we talk with Agnes Meilhac, the founder of Beautyterm to discuss how the company’s expert translation and linguistic consulting services provide clients with specific expertise catering to the beauty sector.
SDF: Your career has included both communication and translator positions. What was your introduction to the beauty industry?
Agnes: I had an unusual experience; in a way beauty found me. After much hand-wringing over my future (and two Master’s degrees stateside), I ended up at the prestigious École Supérieure d’Interprètes et de Traducteurs (ESIT) at the University of Paris III. When I got my diploma, I was living the dream – living and working freelance in Paris, marrying a Frenchman, having kids.
As fate would have it, I also met my current business partner who was in a similar situation. She was already heavily invested in freelancing for agencies that specialized in beauty. And she was the one who got me hooked on it. What better job could one ask for? I was working with language, which I love, in a city that is one of the capitals of beauty – in more ways than one. I was helping, albeit indirectly, sell French beauty products to English-speaking customers. The projects I worked on were for companies such as Dior, Chanel, Givenchy and Guerlain, which are synonymous with glamour and sophistication around the world.
SDF: Beautyterm is a full service multilingual communications and translation boutique consulting firm catering to brands in the cosmetics and personal care industry. Why did you start the company?
Agnes: I saw a huge unexplored potential for us in the United States. In France, the market was already saturated with language service providers that specialize in cosmetic translation. Here, we still have a lot of headroom for growth, in particular because our unique expertise allows us to provide exclusive customized solutions. I also like the idea of helping American companies hone their international image. It is time we stepped up our game in presenting our products to the world in an intelligent, comprehensive way that shows we are sensitive to other cultures. One way to demonstrate that sensitivity is to stay on top of the quality of communication.
There were other drivers as well. One of them is my strong belief that a company like ours can make a difference, even in Europe, where we are surrounded by intense competition. By way of background, the translation industry has undergone a tedious process of semi-automation with the introduction of CAT (computer-assisted translation) tools, which have taken the soul and creativity out of our work. Translation memory software, the most useful of these tools, serves a purpose when translating documents with heavy repetition of technical terminology– for example contracts, or financial reports. However, communications in the beauty industry require great skill, imagination, and dexterity. Only a creative, culturally-sensitive linguist is capable of translating the true meaning of cosmetic copy with style and flair.
SDF: As more brands begin to enter global markets, why is translation and localization important to building brand awareness?
Agnes: Experienced language professionals know how to work with culturally specific nuances and therefore have a huge impact on how a brand is perceived in a given market. The challenge of making international beauty brands locally relevant is very complex. Branding is only effective when consumers connect with the brand through its name, logo, visuals, and written copy. Good translation and localization closes the gap between global, regional and local differences. This is true for the brand’s website, social media presence, email marketing, packaging, traditional print campaigns, and other types of written copy. Consumers can only relate to the brand if it really speaks to them, and language experts filter the brand’s voice through a prism of cultural resonance. It takes a great deal of skill to convey the subtleties of one set of beauty ideals into another language and culture. For example, French women see beauty as feminine and seductive; American women want to look young and fit. Such distinctions will necessarily affect the brand message.
SDF: How does globalization, research and development, and advertising impact your role as a translator?
Agnes: Beauty is a fascinating, dynamic industry to work in because it is teeming with innovation. It thrives on constant change and new product introductions; sales are driven by new scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs. This has a particular effect on the language of beauty, which is also in perpetual flux and shows the same degree of innovation as the industry it represents. New terms are coined every day; borrowings and permutations abound, both across different languages and different beauty product categories. Language professionals must stay abreast of these developments.
The recent era of globalization has, paradoxically, brought about a strong revival in interest in local traditions and practices. The trend for natural products using ancestral knowledge of herbs and flora is a good example – think Naturia (Brazil), The Body Shop (UK) or Burt’s Bees (US). Leading companies in the beauty industry are now expected to respond to consumers looking for increasingly nuanced mixtures of the local and the global in the brands they buy. Translators are in a unique position to offer creative thinking outside of a company’s culture but they must remain sensitive to the impact of the global markets on the brands they work for.
SDF: Do you have any advice for a brand considering re-packaging to enter into an international market?
Agnes: I would encourage European companies to recognize the added value of professional translation. Many Europeans speak a foreign language, even several. Brands shouldn’t underestimate the benefit of partnering with professional language specialists to convey the brand message in other languages.
In the US, I would urge brands to trust the expertise of language professionals with proven track records in the beauty sector. As a rule, American brands tend to feel less comfortable with foreign language work. And that is understandable. In the beauty industry, translation is an inherently subjective process. This is something that needs to be understood by all parties. Most of the translator’s work involves transcreation, which is recreating brand content while effectively preserving its creative and emotional intent and therefore allowing the original message to best resonate with the intended audience.
On a more practical note, I would say that reference materials and time are key factors. The company should provide the translator with as much context and background information about the product as possible (visuals, artwork, previous translations, etc.). Last but not least, successful creative translation is a highly time consuming process. The more time, the better the results.