How ASICS Runs Localization: Insights on Vendors, Processes, Technologies

ASICS Corporation was founded in Japan over 70 years ago. In 2016, it acquired the running tracker app, Runkeeper, and evolved the team into ASICS Digital. Based in Boston, eponymous home to the iconic marathon, ASICS Digital is the hub of the company’s digital transformation.

According to Alessandra Binazzi, Director of Localization, ASICS Digital powers the company’s “entire digital consumer world” comprising four brands: ASICS.com; customer membership program OneASICS; virtual workout app ASICS Studio, and the Runkeeper app. In Binazzi’s words, “We improve our users’ lives through fitness and make ASICS the most helpful fitness brand in the world.”

Runkeeper alone has over 50 million users in 180 countries who access the app in 12 languages (English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Brazilian Portuguese, Japanese, Swedish, Dutch, Russian, Korean, and Simplified Chinese).

Binazzi, who joined the company shortly after ASICS acquired Runkeeper and just before it launched ASICS Digital, told Slator, “I was tasked with building the localization program for the organization. In H2 of 2019, we hired two Localization Program Managers to take ownership of different parts of the business and evolve the program in two specific focus areas, fitness apps and global content.” 

Selecting Vendors and Getting the Best of Both Worlds

The localization needs of ASICS Digital are fairly broad, Binazzi said; so she chooses language service providers (LSPs) that can support “a wide array of services, not limited to translation.” Examples of the services they use are localized visual asset production, third-party reviews, transcreation and local copy writing, and local content creation.

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“The highest priorities for our language technology partners are flexibility and automation capabilities. We need to be able to connect to many different content repositories. We enforce continuous localization in an agile environment and encourage our regional partners to use our central TMS. I look for providers that align with ASICS Digital’s core initiatives of pursuing differentiated innovation and achieving operational excellence,” Binazzi explained.

ASICS Digital currently works with two providers globally and uses a mixed approach to localization, dependent on content type: “We use a human-only translation model for creative content as well as product UI. For large-scale content, we use a model that combines MT with human translation.”

“We took advantage of the launch of a new language on our e-commerce site to pilot an MT + human solution, measured considerable cost and time savings, and adopted the model across the board.”

Asked how they identify use cases for machine translation (MT), Binazzi replied, “ASICS Digital employs MT for two main purposes: scalability and user generated content. Our product descriptions are high volume and fairly repeatable content — perfect candidate for MT. We took advantage of the launch of a new language on our e-commerce site to pilot an MT + human solution, measured considerable cost and time savings, and adopted the model across the board.”

ASICS Digital’s Director of Localization has actually blogged about their approach to MT. She wrote, “Despite continuous developments of MT technology, quality remains the main drawback of MT. There is a reason why the first output of MT is referred to as ‘raw MT.’” She also mentioned Lilt as one of their vendors, remarking, “Predictive Adaptive NMT in partnership with human translators. We get the best of both worlds!”

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As for user generated content (UGC), Binazzi told Slator, they use a third-party service, which provides MT out of the box for reviews. They also use sentiment analysis on UGC from the US and are “starting to consider options for our local user reviews.”

She added that the company’s regional offices use LSPs within the region with whom they have longstanding relationships and, thus, she “didn’t see the value in disrupting these partnerships.” The majority of their multilingual SEO efforts are run through regional providers as well.

For their localization tech stack, Binazzi said they generally work with third-party tool providers whose core business is localization tech, and rely on in-house engineering teams for certain custom scripts to automate their proprietary system.

“ASICS Digital Localization is the only entity in the wider ASICS global organization with real localization expertise,” Binazzi said, and they “support local offices by providing best practices and localization training, offering centralized tools and automation, conducting due diligence on existing contracts, and facilitating renegotiations.”

“We need to be agile and adaptable, while honoring existing regional partnerships. A one-stop-shop approach does not fit this model.”

As the Localization unit onboards more ASICS offices and regional partners onto their centralized tools, according to Binazzi, they have also started providing localization dashboards and data insights for local marketing teams to gain control and optimize their own localization processes.

She said, “We value flexibility greatly. ASICS Digital works with many stakeholders around the world and our priorities can shift frequently and quickly. We need to be agile and adaptable, while honoring existing regional partnerships. A one-stop-shop approach does not fit this model.”

Volumes, Runner Lingo, LSPs vs Pure-Play TMS

Binazzi said that while her unit, per se, processes modest volumes, the wider ASICS organization and regional offices work with relatively higher content volumes. Because ASICS Digital focuses on digital content, they “work with a lot of short-messaging creative content in addition to mobile app or e-commerce UI, which do not generate a high volume of words. We are also diligent about reusing and repurposing content.”

ASICS Digital, however, does “produce and localize moderately high volumes” for product descriptions that cover technical and usability information about ASICS shoes, apparel, and accessories. According to Binazzi, they also publish content that describes and explains the benefits of technology developed by the ASICS Institute of Sports Science in Japan and used in ASICS products.

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Binazzi pointed out that working with a variety of teams distributed throughout many regional offices and who manage a wide variety of content types through local LSPs is a huge challenge as far as ensuring consistency of terminology.

She said they are currently working with a terminology consultant “to help us manage the multitude of assets and, most importantly, the wide array of stakeholders around the world.”

So how challenging is it to localize runner lingo? Binazzi said, as with any passionate community, runners use a unique terminology and “engaging linguists who are runners and fitness aficionados is a requirement in our sourcing.”

However, sourcing qualified resources is not enough when working with digital content and products, she said, and proper internationalization matters. She noted how resources also need to be kept up to date for the most current use of running terms.

“Engaging linguists who are runners and fitness aficionados is a requirement in our sourcing.”

Binazzi cited one example: “Although Italian has a very specific term for a runner, ‘podista,’ currently the most used term in the Italian running community is ‘runner.’ Using the traditional term ‘podista’ would make us sound out of touch and certainly not the authority in the field.”

She recalled her first order of business after ASICS Digital was established was to review the Runkeeper product content and improve localization. “What I found was a myriad of global variables used ubiquitously throughout the product code,” Binazzi said. “The most notable variable was the (dreaded) global ‘run.’ In English, the term ‘run’ was inserted in sentences as a verb, noun, or past-participle, forcing grammatical mistakes in most other languages. Think about it: Run your first 5K; Friday morning run; You and Paul have run a total of 7.3 miles this week. Now translate that into French, and pick only one version of the word ‘run.’”

“Using one LSP’s tool ties an organization to the provider — regardless of the provider’s promise of supporting vendor neutrality.”

To measure the success of localized content, she said they align very closely with the metrics of the product and marketing teams and regularly survey customers.

As a parting shot, Slator asked Binazzi who she thought was ahead in the TMS race between LSPs and pure-play TMS providers. Her reply: “I’m a strong believer in focusing on one’s own core competencies. Pure-play TMS providers can focus all their investments, research, and efforts on the tools. LSP independence is another major benefit of TMS providers, as they allow an organization the flexibility to shift LSPs, work with multiple LSPs, or engage internal linguist teams through the same tool. Using one LSP’s tool ties an organization to the provider — regardless of the provider’s promise of supporting vendor neutrality.”