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International Business: Wrong flowers can mean death for global business

Published: Friday, Feb. 4 2011 7:00 a.m. MST

Flowers bloom at the Bountiful Temple.

Larry A. Sagers

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A leading U.S. cosmetics and fragrance brand once tried to market flower-scented perfumes in Latin America. Unfortunately, one of these fragrances reportedly failed in Brazil because the flower was reportedly used for funerals in the region. What woman would want a scent reminiscent of a funeral parlor?

As consumers consider flower purchases for Valentine’s Day in the United States, this holiday is an appropriate time to remember that flowers have different meanings in other countries and cultures. Flowers have a wide range of meanings from love to professional courtesy, congratulations and sympathy. Confusing these messages could be disastrous, not only for a cross-border romance, but also for global business. Before sending flowers internationally, research the various cultural connotations those flowers may carry and be sure the message you send is intentional!

In some cases, as with the fragrance in Brazil, the type of flower carries significant meaning. Trademarks, logos and product names referencing or incorporating flowers of ill fortune have all performed poorly overseas.

In other cases, the number of flowers is important. Did you know that Russians generally give flowers in odd numbers because even numbers of flowers are for funerals and sympathy? By contrast, in other countries, an even number of flowers may send a more positive message.

In addition to type and number, intercultural color meanings can influence the message communicated with a bloom.

“In Muslim and many Pacific Rim countries, the color white is reserved for funerals,” writes former chief White House florist Nancy Clarke, an expert on international floral protocol. “In many of the Central and South American countries, the same is true of the color yellow.”

When United Airlines took over Pan Am’s Pacific routes and initiated a new first-class service out of Hong Kong, the company gave white carnations to personnel and passengers. Unfortunately, in that part of the world, white flowers symbolize death and misfortune – certainly not the ideas United wished to emphasize on any of its flights. Imagine how U.S. citizens might react to an inaugural flight filled with symbols of black cats and the number 13! The airline quickly switched to red carnations, which carry much more positive connotations in Hong Kong and the surrounding region.

In the examples of Revlon and United Airlines, the solution was evidently to steer clear of the offending flowers. However, sometimes the correct course of action is not terribly obvious. Such was the case when U.K. representatives wore poppies on a visit to China in November 2010.

In the United Kingdom, poppies are traditionally worn each November in remembrance of those who have died serving their country. The symbol comes from the poppies that grow in Flanders Fields where many Englishmen died in World War I. When U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and his aides visited China, Chinese officials requested they remove the red flowers from their lapels because the poppy reminds the Chinese of the Opium Wars fought between the two countries in the 1800s.

Considering the strong emotion on each side in that sensitive circumstance, it would be difficult to come up with a resolution to satisfy both parties. About the request from the Chinese, a British official said, “We informed them (the poppies) meant a great deal to us and we would be wearing them all the same.”

Sometimes, there is no easy way around a delicate situation. However, before a company includes flowers on its international logo, website, advertising, product or packaging, a precautionary step would be to obtain an evaluation from international customers. In a sense, doing a little research into cultural flower symbolism could mean the difference between life and death.

To be safe, should brand and marketing managers avoid flowers completely in international business? That may be a viable option for some companies. Perhaps an absent-minded man who forgets flowers for a special someone on Valentine’s Day or an anniversary will attempt to recover by explaining, “Dear, each flower seems to symbolize death in at least one other culture, and I did not want to risk inviting any misfortune into our relationship, so I skipped the flowers this time.” If you try it, please let me know. I would be fascinated to hear the reactions to such an excuse.

In that situation, the absence of flowers might be equally as deadly as giving the wrong flowers.

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at BYU. E-mail: awooten@lingotek.com . Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten..

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