Words have the power to define the success or failure of communications. The weight of words is crucial and will ultimately affect the way a message resonates with your target market, locally or across markets.
The question therefore arises as to why words are perceived differently. And more importantly, how brands can use words and phrases according to the markets they would like to communicate in. In other words, how can they fine-tune messages using more relevant terminology, and in turn, tone-of-voice?
- How are words perceived? (connotation, denotation)
To begin with, it is important to distinguish between connotation and denotation.
Denotation refers to the literal meaning and definition of a word. On the other hand, connotation refers to the implicit meaning, i.e. the positive or negative associations that we identify with a word. More often than not, the connotation associated with a word is what most influences people.
Late 2015, Bloomingdale’s publish a print ad in one of their holiday catalogues. It featured a man looking towards a woman with the advice to ’Spike your friend’s eggnog when they’re not looking’. In this instance, Bloomingdale’s were referring to the practice of ‘spiking’ eggnog with alcohol, however they didn’t consider the connotations associated with the term ‘spiking’. Colloquially, it is also associated with date-rape and is widely used to refer to a drink has been tainted with alcohol or drugs, with women more frequently targeted than men. The inappropriate nature of this advert therefore becomes evident when a man is pictured staring at a beautiful woman...
- Who’s the audience? (country, region, market)
With this in mind, you should also consider your target audience. Are you addressing a country? A region? A market? Who is it made up of? What is the current cultural context?
Unless really segmented or specific, most of the time the target audience can be diverse – in terms of socioeconomics and culture – and it is simply impossible to adapt your message to specific individuals. Without intending to be too general, it is important to highlight some traits or characteristics commonly shared by individuals in a group.
Once identified, these groups can be studied and it is possible to highlight what would be pertinent to use in order to reach them without making any blunders. Assessing the audience’s culture, values and habits is critical to avoid conveying the wrong message. A distorted message could lead to audiences turning their backs on the sender.
Following the April 2017 Boston Marathon, Adidas found itself in a PR nightmare. To congratulate all the runners who made it until the end, they sent an email that said “Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon”, failing to consider the fact that a fatal bombing occurred during the same event in 2013. Public apologies followed pretty promptly but these crisis management measures could have been avoided with further intelligence into the target audience and contextualisation.
One step further
It is common for organisations to call on in-house resources such as team members or even colleagues from overseas branches to copywrite, adapt or translate some content into a foreign language. However, this is often inadequate and unsuccessful because being fluent in a language does not make you a language specialist, even if you are a copywriter.
Linguistic professionals are trained and understand the nuances in meaning; they are also able to adapt to different registers and tones of voice according to the requirements. Cultural sensitivity is also of great importance. It is worth noting that a comprehensive understanding of a country’s culture allows for better expertise when accurately producing content in a target language.
A careful choice of words, structures and expressions can go a long way. Regardless of your audience, there are implicit rules to be followed to be as accurate as possible. Most blunders by international brands will be due to limited outsourced expert resources or internal processes that prevent local due diligence to be undertaken when it comes to word choice, either in English or the local language.
Audiences will always take note of brands that try to reach out to them by tailoring their messages to the market. The better an advertiser knows its audience, the more effective its advertising efforts will be. There are no shortcuts. Researching your audience and utilising professional services are key elements to consider when communicating with your targets.