When in Germany,
Do as the Germans Do

A comparison of US and German marketing language

by Mila-Theres Wendland
January 2021

Introduction

In the 21st century, business is run globally. And two of the biggest players in the world are without a doubt the United States and Germany. Even though many people would say that there are no extreme differences between these two countries, a closer look reveals that they are not as similar, either in their culture or their language, as one might have thought.

 

Diversifying the messaging approach in German and English is the key to success

 

English is one of the most influential languages in the world, especially online. It’s the native language of a whopping 370 million people and is also used by 740 million non-native speakers, which means that around 20% of the world’s population speaks English to some degree. English is no doubt one of the most important languages on Earth, but especially when it comes to the European market you should not forget about your potential German-speaking customers.

German is spoken by more than 130 million people and is the most widely spoken language in the European Union. For the US, Germany is the most important trading partner in the EU. In return, the US is also the most important trading partner for Germany, which has the largest economy in Europe, with a GDP of more than $3.4 billion.

Although everyone in Germany studies English in school, they still like to be able to access websites in their native language. In fact, Germany’s “.de” is the second-largest country top-level domain out there, following China’s “.cn”. Germany is a huge market, and addressing it properly means that you are taking care of millions of potential customers.

Despite the fact that the English and German languages share the same Germanic roots, the two countries themselves are very different. If you are already putting effort into reaching German customers, you will want to make sure to approach them in a way that is the most natural and appealing to them. Knowing the differences between the American and German messaging approach is the key to success. But what exactly are those differences?

 

Differences Between the English and German Messaging Approach

If you start by looking at the cultural differences between the two countries, then their language approach will begin to make more sense.

Americans tend to be proud of their rather informal culture. Everyone is called by their first name, and receiving or giving compliments on the street isn’t unusual.

English has a informal culture, Germany, in contrast, has a formal culture

 

Germany, in contrast, has a formal culture. Addressing someone by their first name is only acceptable if you are talking to someone you know well, and casually chatting to someone on the street is relatively unheard of. Germans tend to be organized and punctual, and like to get straight to the point. This reflects in the way they express themselves — they have the concept of addressing someone in a formal manner built right into their language.

While English always uses “you,” German differentiates between “du” (which is the informal way to address someone) and the formal option, “Sie.” Formal speech is generally preferred unless speaking to children, family or friends. In addition to the formal pronoun “Sie,” surnames are used to maintain a professional distance at work, especially when talking to superiors or customers.

There is also a “semi-formal” option of addressing someone — in this case, you would use “Sie,” but instead of using their surname, you would use their first name. This is common among teachers addressing older students to show a certain level of respect toward the young adults. Some companies also choose this level of formality as a middle ground. When in doubt, though, you should always address someone formally. Adhering to these frameworks ensures effective communication in the target language.

One size really does not fit all, though, and research confirms that German B2C companies prefer to use an informal voice and be less personal in general, while B2B companies prefer a formal tone over an informal one.

Choosing what voice to use in Germany really depends on your audience, and figuring that out might not always be easy. Finding the right voice is crucial, because even if you have amazing content, graphics and designs, that won’t matter in the end if your target audience isn’t the one you are looking for, because your communication might seem too informal and not respectful enough.

Companies may choose to use a rather informal voice when their demographic is very young or they are in a more creative industry. If you want to address an older clientele, or if you work B2B, then you should always stick to a formal approach. Again, if you are in doubt, you can always choose the safe route of a formal tone.

Unfortunately, even companies in the same industry might apply a different approach. The two leading German telecommunication companies, for example, Vodafone and Telekom, are in the same industry, and you would think with a similar demographic, but Vodafone chooses to address their customers in an informal manner while Telekom chooses to do the opposite. This might be due to the fact that Telekom used to have a monopoly in Germany and their clientele is a little older than Vodafone’s, while Vodafone is working to reach the younger generations.

In the US, on the other hand, there is only a fine line between formal and informal English, so it is really easy to switch between tones as they don’t have dedicated pronouns or declinations of words, etc. to make phrases sound specifically formal.

Also, the frequency of German modal verbs like können, möchten, wollen and müssen etc., compared to the frequency of modal verbs used in English like can, could, may, must and shall etc., is certainly higher on German websites and confirms this theory, as they are used to express politeness.

Zendesk, for example, uses “Build with, on, and beyond” on their US website while they use “Darauf können Sie bauen,” which means “You can build on this.” This is just one of many examples found on the websites.

Overall, you could say that each country’s customs and behavior in day-to-day life, translate directly into how companies choose to address their customers online.


Telekom Germany


Vodafone Germany

 

Business or Customer: What Should You Focus On?

Many people might already know that German, compared to English, is a very formal language, which is reflected in German marketing strategies. What they might not know, though, is that each country also has a different approach in terms of what they focus on.

Let’s start by looking at the focus in the United States. What I’ve predominantly found is that American websites lay their focus on the vendor. Not only do they shift their focus toward them, but they also often choose to directly include the word “business” as an overall keyword, like “Grow your business with Salesforce,” rather than addressing why their product or service is great for potential new customers.

Americans focus
on the business,
while Germans focus on the customer

 

They prefer to directly concentrate on why the software or service they offer would make your company grow and be successful. American websites like to use a lot of adjectives to describe features on their websites, like “help small businesses sell smarter and support faster in a single app.” This language is used to create a feeling and make it sound as incredible as possible, even if that means skipping product features that may be harder to process.

German websites, on the other hand, tend to get straight to the point. They do concentrate on the actual features, and the paragraphs tend to list more of them directly rather than caring about all the beautiful ways you could describe them. The focus in Germany lies on your current or potential customers and also on trusting the company. So instead of addressing you, they will rather name all the great benefits their software or service has for your customers and why you should trust and use that company’s product or service to gain more customers.

In German, less descriptive phrases are used as well, and the focus is on the actual key points. One German website simply states: “Start-ups und kleine Unternehmen” which just translates to “Start-ups and small businesses” — straight to the point, without any additional adjectives, focusing on the key aspects.

As mentioned earlier, on German websites, rather than creating a feeling, they try to build trust, and another example for that can be found on Salesforce. They use the slogan, “Unternehmen vertrauen auf Salesforce” in German, which translates to “Companies trust Salesforce,” The difference between the American slogan (“Grow your business with Salesforce”) and the German slogan might not seem big, but as mentioned earlier, what the company ultimately focuses on in each language is still different.

The US focuses on the growth of the business, while the German website focuses on trust.

Even though English uses more descriptive words in marketing, the paragraphs are still shorter than their German equivalents, which is due in part to the sheer length of german words, as well as how sentences in German are structured. Overall, German texts can actually be up to 20% longer than the English equivalent.

When creating a website in the US, make sure to put an emphasis on the vendor, while if you want to reach a German target audience, you should focus on the advantages for the customers and keep it simple by sticking to the key points.

 

Most Important Differencesin Terms of the Focus
USA Focus
Germany Focus
Focus on vendorFocus on regular or potential customers
Growth of businessTrust
Many adjectives usedKey points, facts, features
Using language to create a feelingInformation
Shorter textLonger text

Jargon and Anglicism Flooding the German Language

Anglicism has fired a debate in Germany for years. On the one hand, you have the anglicism advocates who say that the German language is enriched by new words and that gaps can be filled; on the other hand, you have the opponents, who say that it ruins the language and that beautiful German words will be lost because of it. But German has always been influenced by other languages, like French or Latin in the past.

With the world becoming more globalized and also social media having a big impact on the language, especially for the youth in Germany, there is no doubt that the English language now has a big impact on German.

 

The German language is
gaining a lot
of English words and jargon.

 

Data nowadays transmits within seconds, so it is not a surprise that with this new form of online communication, language evolves quicker and integrates words at a faster rate. And as much as teenagers are frowned upon for their use of English slang, German companies are increasingly using more English terms even for their German-speaking customers.

English words can be seen scattered all over German websites like “supply chain,” “content” and “database-publishing,” just to name a few. Even though a lot of times English words can be used to make something sound more trendy or upbeat in Germany, in the SaaS business, certain terms have definitely been established. Did companies just implement these terms
without there being actual evidence that these words are actually used in these industries?

Looking at different resources like SEMrush and Google Analytics, it is possible to establish a good overview of key terms found frequently on SaaS websites. Initial comparisons indicate that these terms are indeed frequently used and also searched for by German customers, and it is not just a marketing strategy to make a company look more upbeat and trendy.

For example, “supply chain” has a whopping 12,100 searches per month in German search, while the German equivalent only has 1,900 (more examples listed below). And as you can see from the table down below, that is the case for all listed terms.

The German language is definitely gaining a lot of English words and jargon.

Although the numbers speak for themselves, more detailed analysis suggests that the second-highest search volume after the keyword itself is “keyword + meaning” or “keyword + german or definition”. That suggests that even though the keywords have a high search volume, a lot of people are still unsure about the meaning. While certain terms are widespread, others might need some more time to settle in and should be used carefully.

 

Monthly Search Volume SEMrush
English Term Used in GermanSearch VolumeSearch VolumeGerman Equivalent of English Term
Supply Chain
12,100
1,900Lieferkette
E-Commerce
12,100
1,900Onlinehandel
Workflow
9,900
720Arbeitsablauf
SaaS (Software as a Service)
2,900
10Software als Service
Interface
14,800
8,200Oberfläche
Online-Services
4,400
1,600Online-Dienste
Content
27,100
6,600Inhalt
Database Publishing
170
0Datenbank Veröffentlichung
Customer Experience
3,600
140Kundenerfahrungen

 

Google Search Results Germany
English Term Used in GermanSearch VolumeSearch VolumeGerman Equivalent of English Term
Supply Chain
1.47 bil
2.6 milLieferkette
E-Commerce
1.45 bil
2.43 milOnlinehandel
Workflow
97.5 bil
1.02 milArbeitsablauf
SaaS (Software as a Service)
3.56 bil
3.48 bilSoftware als Service
Interface
984 bil
62.1 milOberfläche
Online-Services
9.93 bil
219 bilOnline-Dienste
Content
12.43 bil
275 milInhalt
Database Publishing
643 bil
40 milDatenbank Veröffentlichung
Customer Experience
4.610 bil
586,000Kundenerfahrungen

 

“Keywords + Meaning” SEMRush in Germany
+ Definition+ Bedeutung (meaning)+ Deutsch (German)
Supply Chain
1,300
1101,900
E-Commerce
2,900
590480
Workflow
480
301,600
SaaS (Software as a Service)
110
2010
Interface
480
1,600
Content
720
4808,100
Database Publishing
170
Customer Experience
210
10260
Red: >1000 Yellow: 500-1000 Green: <500

Meta Description & Title Tags:
First Impressions Count

After comparing the English and German marketing language in very broad terms, what tone they use, jargon, and what each country focuses on, let’s now take a step back and have a look at more specific parts of websites and how language is put into practice. Let’s start with the first thing you would encounter before even entering a website.

What someone will most likely do is search for a website they want to visit or search for a question with the help of a search engine. Then, they will come across the so-called title tag and meta description — the little title and description of the website that you click on and that is displayed by the search engine. These are the first things a potential customer will see to help determine whether or not they click on the website.

These two things should, in theory, be optimized for search by the companies, and that usually includes the name of the company and a short description of their service. Meta description and title tags can only take up a certain limited amount of characters and everything that is longer than that won’t be shown in search, so it also won’t reach potential new customers. For the sake of the search engine, as well as your potential customers, this part should be optimized.

As you can see in the example provided above, Pagination.com, a cloud database publishing solution, optimized their title tags and meta description in both English and German, complying with the maximum characters allowed.

Unfortunately, with many other companies this is not the case, and you can tell that title tags and meta descriptions have only been translated, which leads to texts that are too long and are thus cut off by search engines. This doesn’t necessarily relate to how companies choose to use languages in a certain way, but rather is an unfortunate translation mistake. When they are not just translated though, the findings do not come as a surprise at this point. The US sticks to fun slogans like “Keep ‘em smiling” while in German they used “Immer zufriedene Kunden,” which means “Always satisfied customers” — rather practical and straight to the point. By now, I think we can all grasp the common theme.


Zendesk.com


Zendesk.de

 

Header and Paragraphs:
Characteristics and Peculiarities


When you finally click on the website, the first thing your eyes will be drawn to will probably be the main heading. As for the paragraphs in general, their headings are rather short and fun in English, while they also tend to add subheadings that are a little longer and actually involve a description.

 

Headings are
rather short and fun in English

 

On the opposite end, a longer descriptive heading is preferred in German, and subheadings are also a rarer occurrence compared to in the US. Germans rather pack a lot of information right into the heading and renounce slogans, etc.

What is very noticeable is that a lot of numbers are used in English too. For example, they might state that they are the “#1” in the world or that with the help of their service, your company could do the same tasks “20x” faster than beforehand. Typically speaking, US websites are overall very bold in what they claim and love to use actual numbers to catch your eye.

German websites either crop out numbers completely or instead use adjectives to describe the same thing, as that seems more professional to their German customers. The German version suddenly omits “20x” completely and #1 turns into “the leading company worldwide.” Different examples also include terms like “24/7” or “1:1 service” changing to “24-hour support” and “individual appointments.”

Another aspect is also that a lot of America-based companies obviously have a lot of services or products that have their own proper name. These names are also often used in German, even though they theoretically are English terms, and they sometimes give additional insight into the product as well.

Adobe, for example, uses “paint with fresco” on the English website. Fresco is one of the many services they offer. On the German website, in contrast, they use “malen auf touch-Geräten” which signifies “painting on touch devices.” Even though it is not necessarily self-explanatory, Adobe expects their US customers to understand but also complies with what was mentioned previously: that a nice-sounding phrase is more important than adding an additional explanation like they do in German.

                       Salesforce.de                                                           Salesforce.com

Call to Action:
How Forward Is Too Forward?

In marketing, it’s all about advancing the customer to the next step of the buying phase. A call to action is a great tool to offer the customer quick and efficient help as well as easier navigation. These are often displayed as little buttons, which you can see on basically any website. Some examples are the buttons “contact,” “buy now” or “watch demo.”

In any website in any language, you will find these calls to action, because the goal of all businesses around the globe is to sell their products to make a profit. There is a difference in how prominent they are, though.

On Salesforce, for example, there are two different versions of this pop-up window for the United States. The first version is pretty big and says “Need help?” It has a picture of a sales associate and looks like a chat window.

The second version is a little more toned-down, with an additional picture added to the button: “Let’s Chat.”

In the German version, there is initially no big pop-up chat, but rather a small CTA button that says: “Kontakt.” At first, one might think that this is due to not having a chat function available in Germany, but upon further inspection, eventually, the chat icon does pop up. One just has to stay on the website longer before it will switch to the second option.

That option is still a lot less invasive than the US version. It has an image of an associate whom you can chat with, but overall isn’t as big and prominent. The first version of the CTA in Germany did not, however, lead me to a chat function, but rather a contact form instead.

                Germany Version 1                                       Germany Version 2

                       

US Version 1                                                                US Version 2

There is also a difference in the phrases used, and the word choices are once more not a surprise. The US sticks to “Need Help?” and “Let’s Chat” while Germany is very blunt and straight to the point: “Kontakt.”

The second German version, with the picture of the sales associate and the very informal phrase “Jetzt Chatten,” you could actually almost say is a little forward for a German speaker and for what we have seen on other websites so far.

“Jetzt Chatten” is the equivalent to the English “Let’s Chat”; the only difference is that in German, it is longer and therefore does not completely fit into the button displayed and was cut off due to the lack of space.

The main takeaway is that Germany generally sticks to one or two nouns and is straight to the point, while the US likes to use an imperative phrase if a certain CTA allows that.

 

Use of Videos and Images: Germany vs. USA

 

Videos and images are also an important part of marketing, and as in all previous points, here we are also able to find certain differences. Let’s start by looking at the overall disparity in the usage of graphics.

Graphics, images, videos and icons can generally be found more in the United States. German pages, on the other hand, tend to have a fairly minimal design; in fact, they often have a white background instead of a colored one.

There is a contrast in the use of banner images as well. A slide show, for example, is often used in America, while in Germany it would not be. In the US, they static images that fit with the overall idea of having a website that is more interactive and also visibly appealing.

Also, the images themselves tend to be more generic or even boring, while the US counts on colors instead. Where the US would place colorful graphics with numbers and just a short description, Germany wouldn’t place a graphic at all but rather go for a heading and a bulleted list with more data and facts.

One regular problem with website graphics is that a lot of text displayed within images is not translated. So when an image has English text within it, it remains that way on the German site rather than being translated.

Even German-based companies like SAP use English images instead of offering the images in the native language of their customers. Most of the time, this doesn’t seem to be a big problem, as the info in the pictures is not necessary to understand. A problem occurs, though, when things are explained using German words and the stock image shows the English version. This can be very confusing, especially for German natives who are not comfortable enough with English.

    Optimized Image Zendesk.de.                                           Optimized Image Zendesk.com

Just like images, videos are also less common in the German market. Articles are often provided instead of counting on the more visual approach. And even if a video is offered, a lot of times it is not translated or dubbed. Of course there are logistics involved, but in many cases, not even subtitles are provided.

To be able to find a video on a German website, you might have to search a little longer, as they are often embedded on the site with the article, while in the US they often show you a CTA button that leads to the video instead.

On American websites, there is a more visual approach that fits the theme of a more informal communication, as well as slogans that they like to use for headings, etc. instead of more formal, informative text.


             German Website                                                                  US Website

 

FAQ, Pricing and Contact details

 

A few other things to look at include the FAQ, price section and contact information.

FAQ

An FAQ is an important part of every website as it helps customers to receive quick and easy answers and prevents customer service being flooded with very easy-to-answer questions. Helping your customer in a simple and appealing way is vital.

Looking at the different approaches in each country, the results do not come as a surprise after everything we’ve looked at. Most of the questions and answers are the same in both countries. There can be a few more extra questions in Germany, which are often location- or region-related. As frequently mentioned before, the answers in German can be more extensive and more detail-oriented than the US equivalents.

Pricing

For the pricing section, the case is very similar. In Germany, the prices are declared right there and then, while the US often tries to market with a 20% off discount or that 20+ apps are included. The focus is rather on the amazing value rather than displaying the price right away. Also, in Germany, more details concerning what is included may be present right from the start when the price is advertised.

Contact Information

One last thing to look at is contact details. Besides the classic “name,” “surname,” “job,” “title,” “email,” “phone” and “country,” on German websites, they also may ask for the “company,” what “position” they have, and the “language.” As is generally the case, additional info is provided for the German-speaking customer.

A great example would be this one found on Salesforce, just to show you how much longer a German sentence or paragraph regarding the same thing can be.

On the US website, it reads, “Sign up now to start your free sales trial,” while in German, it reads, “Starten Sie Ihre persönliche Testversion. Bitte füllen Sie das Formular aus, um Ihre kostenlose Testversion zu starten. Unser Team wird sich mit Ihnen in Verbindung setzen, um Ihnen zu helfen, das Beste aus Ihrem Testlauf zu machen,” which translates to: “Start your personal free sales trial. Please fill in the form to start your free trial. Our team will contact you to make the most of your test version.”

The sheer length and the details make this a perfect example of what companies try to implement in the German language and what speaks to German consumers.


             Salesforce.de                                                                       Salesforce.com

Takeaway: Marketing Language in the USA and in Germany

 

Finding the right voice and style to bring customers together in the United States and Germany, two countries on opposite sides of the Atlantic, is very important, and there are several factors to consider when doing so. Finding the right voice and style to approach customers in each country is important. In summary:

USA

When targeting a US customer, it is suitable to use a rather informal voice. Focus on phrasing sentences and paragraphs to make them sound interesting and fun; it’s not as important to go into too much detail.

The focus should also be on the vendor rather than talking about potential customers.

Also, the visual aspect is very important — provide videos instead of articles, and display lists including fun and colorful icons or checkmarks.

Germany

When trying to approach a German customer, you need to focus on detailed information and keep a formal approach.

Visual aspects are not used as often in the German-speaking market as in the US.

English words are finding their way into the German language, but make sure to do research and confirm that these words are common enough to be used without raising possible doubts about their meaning.

 

Language is just one of many different factors that go into optimizing a website

 

Right now, there are still compelling distinctions between the two languages and cultures. Increasing globalization will also leave its marks on the messaging approach used in the respective language. It is expected that, in the following years, the German marketing approach will adapt and become even more like the American one, making it easier for companies to approach both potential customers equally and with less effort.

Until then, it is important to pay attention to the current market and possible fluctuations. Language is only one aspect of a website. A marketing strategy, and having a good translator who is experienced in marketing translations, can be a big benefit for companies to be able to localize their website accordingly.

Another aspect is the design of the website, which in addition to making all the resources available to everyone in the correct language and having a great knowledge of the target audience, is vital for success.

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