At this moment, representatives of 54 British IT companies are gathering in Hanover with hundreds of their counterparts from around the world to exhibit at CeBIT, the world’s largest digital and telecommunications trade fair.

As they promote their businesses with marketing translations and technical translations this weekend, they might not be aware that by taking their products to market in Germany they’re continuing a trade partnership that extends back seven centuries.


The Hanseatic League of German towns began trading nationally and internationally in the late Middle Ages, and by 1320 they had a base in London at the site now occupied by Cannon Street railway station.  This pioneering group is still remembered today with airline Lufthansa literally translated as “Air Hansa”.

As eager as British exporters are to make inroads with the “BRIC” economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of our longest standing partner.  In 2011 Germany ranked second only to the United States as an importer of British goods, accounting for a total of just over £27.5 billion, up almost 20% year on year.  Opportunities exist across all sectors, with key targets such as aerospace and automotive engineering particularly strong.

Germany’s aerospace industry is famously innovative and has an annual turnover of 25 billion euros. Expansion has been maintained since the 1990s with strong current growth in civil, military and space sectors. Major players with manufacturing sites in Germany include Airbus, Eurofighter and EADS Astrium. Rolls Royce, which produces some of the world’s most advanced aircraft engines, has recently increased its commitment to Germany with a new marine service centre set to open in Hamburg.   Rolls Royce already employs 3,200 people in Germany at two aerospace production facilities and a state-of-the-art mechanical testing facility.  This standard bearer for British quality views Germany as a perfect base for strategic growth.


Germany’s economy has weathered recent storms better than most in Europe.  Public finances are far healthier than those in the UK and growth in 2011 was powered largely by investment and consumer spending. With opportunities abounding across many sectors, what are the potential pitfalls for the UK exporter?

Because so many Germans in commerce and public life speak impeccable English, there’s a temptation to ignore possible communication issues.  When it comes to a marketing translation or website localisation project, even the slightest misunderstanding can be costly. It’s not just British exporters who need to tread carefully. German companies sometimes make poor language choices too.  The word “rucksack” originated in Germany, so a recent campaign to promote camping equipment in the country could have used that word without confusion.  Unfortunately a marketing decision was made to adopt the English phrase “body bag” instead.  No matter how adventurous the German hiker might be, we doubt they’d relish the prospect of that particular trip.

It’s also important to appreciate cultural nuances.  Research has demonstrated that a critical element in German website localization is a focus on the values of self-reliance, achievement, independence and individual freedom. Autonomy, competition, and non-conformity are also cherished qualities. A highly educated population of 82 million has embraced e-commerce, and one fifth of all internet users in the European Union are German.   This consumer group is discerning and price conscious, they expect an intelligent, persuasive bid for their custom and above all they expect to be communicated with in their own language.

One British entrepreneur who understood and embraced this is Ravi Karia, director of Universal Textiles. After increasing UK market share through effective use of online sales channels, Ravi partnered up with a German online retailer, fully localising the company’s website and using native speakers to translate product material and deal with customer enquiries.  Like so many successful exporters, Ravi realised that a half-hearted approach would win no plaudits and no business.  On the other hand, effective German website localisation opens the door to a European economic powerhouse and enables immediate, direct communication with 120 million native German speakers in 38 countries.

When the United Kingdom first began trading with Germany, neither country existed in a form that we’d recognise today.  Both sets of people quickly found, however, that there was a great deal to be gained by working together.  700 years later that remains true.  To fully embrace trade opportunities with our oldest partner, British exporters need to fully embrace their language and culture.  Website localisations, marketing translations and technical translations are helping your competitors to do that already.

What are you waiting for?




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  • Paul Chammings

    Once again an interesting piece but your glass half full optimism overlooks some disappointing numbers. Germany’s 2011 growth was “powered”as you put it, thru the first half of the year, but nothing much was powered at all in the last 1/4. Poor production and trade figures together with ongoing euro financial crisis don’t make such a pretty picture. This 700yr friendship has seen as many bad days as good ones and this could be another rocky year.

  • admin


    Thanks for your comment. Yes, I’m guilty as charged. When it comes to Germany I do see the glass half full and there are good reasons for that. The Eurozone crisis has impacted on Germany’s growth and I agree that we’re not out of the woods yet, but for Germany to have remained the UK’s leading trade partner during this challenging period speaks volumes for the importance of the relationship and for the opportunities that still exist for UK exporters. Any lengthy relationship is going to have its rocky spells but as a trade partner and as a European economic bulwark, Germany has to be respected. Two decades ago West Germany absorbed the East’s economy, integrating a moribund system with poor infrastructure, high production costs and no potential for entrepreneurship. For the reunified Germany to emerge as strongly as it did in the 1990s was remarkable, and I believe that same quality of leadership is evident in Germany’s recent contribution to alleviating the Eurozone crisis (notably last Autumn’s investment deal with Greece). The Eurozone remains in fragile health but the German economy remains progressive and the German consumer remains well informed and aspirational.

  • Paul Chammings

    I hate to split hairs but in the article you’ve said Germany ranks second to the US and now you’re saying they’re our leading trade partner?

    • admin

      You’re not splitting hairs, Paul, you’re raising a valid point. Germany ranked second to the United States in 2011 as an importer of UK goods, with a total figure of £27.539 billion to the US’s £31.712 billion. I then said Germany is our leading trading partner because we imported German goods with a value of £41.107 billion in 2011, by far the highest import figure of any country (the US ranked second on the imports list with £25.076 billion). Our combined import and export figure with Germany in 2011 was £68.646 billion, making this our leading trade relationship by a wide margin.

  • Ray Cutcliffe

    Good positive attitude to the German links. We’ve been friends with this country a long time and with good reason – that overshadows the short periods when we weren’t. I’ve employed German staff and find them top notch. Don’t want to generalise but these people are well educated, committed and savvy. We have a lot we can learn from them.