Unintended Cultural Confusion

Recently I discovered a wonderful infographic on the different meanings of colors in various cultures. It got me thinking that people who are branding a product, service or company might be unintentionally offending some of their potential customers. In the use of colors for example, Westerners/Americans would consider grey to be a good logo color to show respect, but in Japan the color for respect would be white and in China it would be yellow. Grey in Japan would be more aligned with words like modesty or reliability.

Sometimes the potential for offending your target customer is obvious. For example, Assitalia is one of the biggest insurance companies in Italy. I am sure the company developed its name without thinking about international considerations and in Italy the name is fine. But if they ever wanted to expand to an English speaking country…well, let’s just say there might be a problem.

But sometimes the potential for offending your customer is less obvious. Most of the large companies I work with agree to conduct foreign language checks to ensure that the names have no problematic connotations in the major foreign languages. In one instance that prevented us from making a major mistake. It turns out one of the names we developed had an obscure slang reference in the Spanish language to a body part that…well, let’s just say it was not a good choice of name.

Some of my smaller clients do not want to do foreign language checks because they are not planning to sell internationally. That is a mistake! Even if you have no plans to sell your product internationally, you need to beware of potential unintended consequences of your actions.

For example, people of Hispanic or Latino origin in the US represent over 17% of the population. What if you unintentionally chose a name that had a bad (but not obvious) connotation in the Spanish language? Would you like to offend over 17% of your potential market?

It is relatively easy to investigate potential unintended language consequences. There are linguistic companies or freelancers who will do this work for a reasonable fee. You can also try to do it yourself if you know different native language speakers. Just ask them questions like:

• How is this word pronounced by a native speaker of your language?

• Is this word similar in sound or appearance to other words in your language? If so, what do those words mean?

 • Are there any inappropriate associations with this word? Is this word similar to any slang terms of the language?

Finally, if you want to check to see if a common word is being used as slang for something else in the English language you can always check the Urban Dictionary. However, be aware that, even though the Urban Dictionary is regulated by volunteer editors (similar to Wikipedia), some of the content of the Urban Dictionary is sexual in nature (for adults only!).

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