Words at work

– 7 min read

Writing for UK vs US audiences: what to know

Writer Team

The Writer Team

Writing for UK vs US audiences

Last summer, just after launching, NFT startup Nonce Finance went viral on UK Twitter. It wasn’t for a good reason.

Though “nonce” is a cryptocurrency abbreviation for “number only used once,” it means something entirely different in British slang: sex offender or pedophile. The startup clearly had no idea, but UK Twitter seized the opportunity to thoroughly embarrass them.

This is a pretty extreme example of what can happen when English gets lost in translation between UK and US audiences. It’s also a great reminder that the world — and the internet — is a big place, so US-based writers and marketers should never assume that every English-speaking person will interpret content the same way.

For US writers and marketers whose work may be viewed across the pond, here are a few things to know about the differences between UK vs US audiences.

Get the basics right: spelling and vocabulary

“Americanisms” — words and phrases distinct from those used in British English — were identified as far back as 1735. Today, each country’s vocabulary and spelling differs wildly. If you use the “wrong” spelling, you risk losing credibility with your audience.

More than 30% of people say that accurate spelling and grammar are the most important factors when deciding to trust online news. A small mistake can massively damage confidence in your brand.

Switching between different terms is also likely to confuse and distract people. Imagine asking users to enter their “postcode” and then confirming it as a “ZIP Code.” It’ll make your company seem inconsistent and careless.

First, decide which type of English makes the most sense to your audience. Then stick to it.

If you’re serving multiple audiences, you can “translate” your English by providing different versions of your site based on location. For example, Levi’s changes their terminology based on the user’s location.

On their US site, they list “Pants,” but it’s “Trousers” on the UK version of their site. Smart move — in the UK, “pants” means underwear.

Screenshot from the Levi's US and UK websites
The navigation section on the Levi’s US and UK websites

Pro tip: the easiest way to achieve this kind of consistency is to use a tool like Writer. Try it for free and save countless hours.

Know your audience

Assumptions won’t get you very far. If you don’t know your audience, you’re running on assumptions.

Knowing your audience also means keeping up with how the world is changing. Over the last few years, consumers in the UK and the US have put more pressure on companies to tackle racism. In our post on diversity and inclusion, we noted that 60% of Americans say that they will buy or boycott based on a brand’s response to current protests. In another consumer trust study by Edelman, 64% of consumers in the US and 57% in the UK said that brands need to take steps to become racially representative to keep their trust.

And as the climate crisis becomes a more pressing issue, both UK and US audiences are thinking more about the origins of the products they buy. This is driving their purchasing decisions.

Again, don’t make assumptions. Start by speaking to people in your audience. Spend time understanding what matters to your target demographic. Research the content they are consuming. Look at what topics are trending with them on social media. Care and be curious.

One such topic is veganism. It’s more important to UK millennials than it is to those in the US. 34.5% of UK millennials plan to go vegan or vegetarian, but it’s only 8.5% in the US.

An example: Dr Martens sells vegan shoes in both the UK and the US. On their UK site, you’ll find a section for vegan products in their navigation.

Screenshot of the vegan product section
The vegan product section on the UK version of the Dr Martens website

They don’t include this on the US version of the site. US customers are directed to shop by “feature” rather than material.

Screenshot from US Dr Martens website
The vegan product section on the US version of the Dr Martens website

Pitch your tone correctly

At best, using the wrong tone means audiences won’t engage with your content. At worst, it’ll offend them.

In ads, avoid the “hard sell” with British audiences. Be more direct with those in the US. In March 2021, many Brits tuned in to US channels for the first time to watch an Oprah interview with Prince Harry and Megan Markle. The sheer volume of commercials shocked them. One BBC news presenter remarked, “I’ve never seen so many commercials in any programme ever.”

There’s a notable difference in the style of holiday commercials. In the UK, viewers anticipate the annual release of the John Lewis Christmas Advert. These long-sell commercials typically feature a quirky story with a heartwarming message. There’s only a quick mention of the John Lewis brand at the end. Compare it to this Walmart holiday commercial that’s upbeat and shows people shopping.

The positive tone in US marketing might be seen as too much by UK audiences who prefer witty, self-deprecating humor.

Aldi USA sent out a series of positive tweets in the run-up to the holiday season.

In comparison, Aldi UK often makes cheeky, self-mocking jokes that cut through to a British audience.

Know your audience’s values

Learning what your audience prioritizes means that you’ll be able to position your messaging to effectively target them. You can show them how your products or services will add value to their lives.

We’ve picked out the key cultural differences between the US and the UK that are relevant in 2022.

Be careful with patriotism

Shopping locally is popular with UK and US audiences, but flag-waving is controversial — especially in Great Britain.

Despite the online shopping boom of the pandemic, consumers in the UK and the US like to support local shops in their areas. Seven in 10 shoppers in the US go out of their way to support local businesses. More than half of consumers in the UK cited supporting small, local producers as the main reason for purchasing from local brands.

Though it’s common in the US for school students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, the US flag is sometimes associated with extreme nationalism and far-right politics. This is even more so in the UK, where Brexit has solidified the Union Jack’s status as a controversial political topic.

Overall, flag imagery and patriotic sentiments are more present in US advertising, especially around the Fourth of July. Equivalent messaging would be out of place any time of year in the UK.

Consider career ambitions vs. personal relationships

In a Statista poll, British and American respondents said they consider a happy relationship to be the most important aspect of their lives. In the US, being successful ranked slightly higher than in the UK. Thirty percent of folks in the US listed “to be successful” in their top three priorities, compared with 23% of Brits.

For those in the UK, “having a good time,” “making my own decisions,” and “learning new things” were more important than success.

Screenshot of Statista poll
Life values in the UK
Screenshot of Statista poll
Life values in the US

Be aware that life priorities vary by location and age group. Check that your messaging resonates with your target demographic.

The best way to prevent embarrassing mistakes

Okay, so you’ve triple-checked that your company name or the name of your new product won’t start a Twitter storm. Great job. Jokes aside, we all know that communication is an art form and words matter. So free up more time for creativity, research, and strategy by modernizing your content process with Writer.