Words Apart

In this week’s Thursday Night Insight, Julia Cupman explores the importance of language in marketing communications, highlighting that market research is a small price to pay to avoid costly linguistic blunders.

I moved to America a couple of years ago and my legal title here is a “resident alien”. No I don’t look like ET, but I have descended from a little island 3,000 miles away where we eat Branston Pickle, Yorkshire puddings and cream teas – otherwise known as Great Britain.

As a foreigner in this huge country, my ears have been attuned to the American vernacular. Indeed when one of my friends called me and asked, “How’s it hanging, sister?”, I wondered (a) whether we had metamorphosed into siblings over night, and (b) what exactly she was alluding to as “hanging”? Despite my confusion, I did think, what a friendly country I’m living in!

At one point, I was, however, grateful at being considered just a “sister” given that I heard the same friend call another woman her “girlfriend”, only to then discover that ALL my female friends had “girlfriends”. Good grief, I thought, this place is full of love! (If any American readers are confused here, the term “girlfriend” in the UK tends to be more than just a platonic relationship…)

Although language can create that sense of community, it has also created a linguistic barrier for me on a number of occasions. For example, I was disgusted and outraged at being offered a “fanny pack” in a store selling outdoor gear. I asked myself whether this was some kind of incontinence bag – until the sales person showed me what us Brits would otherwise call a “bum bag”. (Dude, I know what you’re thinking – this term is no better!)

In this country, you want to pay for your meal but you ask for the “check”; you park your car on your “driveway” but drive to work on a “parkway”; you frequent “bathrooms” in which there’s not always a bath; and you “ship” packages across land even though there’s no water transportation involved. But in spite of these absurdities, I’ve conditioned myself to speak the local lingo under the firm belief that when in Rome, you do as the Romans do.

These are just a few examples of the linguistic challenges and confusions I have encountered in my time here as an “alien”. In fact, of around the 200,000 English words in common use in Britain, it is estimated that 4,000 have a different meaning or are used differently in the US. So in summary, we speak the same language, but with a myriad of exceptions, foreignisms and alienisms. We are two nations divided by a common language, as Winston Churchill once said, as well as George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, apparently.

So what have language discrepancies got to do with marketing? My point is this: for marketers to meet the needs of the market profitably, they have to be able to speak the language of their customers. This might sound simple, but consider the following illustration of how a supplier has clearly failed to talk the talk of its customers. After reading the sign in the photograph below, have a guess at the type of establishment in which this sign is placed, before you read any further.


Believe it or not, the sign is by the swimming pool in the most exclusive hotel here in Westchester, New York. This hotel costs several hundred a night and caters for mainly businessmen and government officials. In displaying a sign forbidding activity from all human orifices, is the hotel not therefore suggesting that these well-to-do people would actually urinate, defecate or release any other bodily substance in the swimming pool had this sign not existed?! What’s more, apart from providing a totally inappropriate message with unsuitable language for its guests, the hotel embarrasses itself further with the non-existent term “expectorting”, which should actually read “expectorating” – otherwise known as coughing or spitting.

It cannot be presumed that the language suppliers speak is the language that buyers understand or relate to, especially where international branding or marketing communications are concerned. Indeed Honda only realized the importance of cultural, linguistic nuances after having introduced its new car “Fitta” into Nordic countries in 2001. Had the major car manufacturer invested in cross-cultural market research, it would have discovered that “fitta” was a vulgar, old fashioned word used to refer to a woman’s genitals in Swedish, Norwegian and Danish. This, by the way, through a rather circuitous and very expensive route, led to the birth of the Honda “Jazz”.

Ikea made a similar mistake in launching a children’s desk called “FARTFULL”. Although this apparently means “speedy” in Swedish, it was an embarrassing blunder given its connotation in English–speaking geographies. Once again, why was research not carried out to test the language and its meaning?


The UK food manufacturer Sharwoods suffered equally costly embarrassment. The company spent £6
million on a campaign to launch its new ‘Bundh’ sauces, only to later discover that this term sounded like the Punjabi slang word for a person’s bottom, thus dispelling a sizeable segment of the market.

We seldom stop to consider the language we use and how countless words and expressions in our branding and communications campaigns can be misinterpreted. This can lead to discrepancies in understanding, sometimes embarrassment such as in the examples above, and a cloud of uncertainty surrounding the message being conveyed. Given the considerable financial resource required for new product development, branding or marketing campaigns, the relatively low cost of market research is a small price to pay to eliminate risk and maximize marketing potential.

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