International Business: Evolving language can frustrate some global brands, benefit others

Published: Friday, July 18 2014 11:15 a.m. MDT

“(W)idespread localization guidance about the dangers of portraying body parts in icons … was reasonable as a general principle in the past,” observes localization and user experience expert Ultan O Broin in MultiLingual magazine, “but years of business globalization, the influence of the Internet and worldwide social media use has changed notions of what is acceptable in the stuffy old world of work.”

“So, the thumbs up icon often seen in social media is now widely accepted as meaning approval in an enterprise context too, where many tasks performed are inherently social,” continues O Broin. “Using that human-based gesture in the context of the streets of Bangladesh, Iran or Thailand is a different matter.”

Similarly, when Nokia selected the name Lumia for its highly successful mobile phone, the company knew that years ago the Spanish word referred to a lady of the night. However, modern connotations are quite different.

“Although it was slang, we did pick that up and decided to run consumer research to check the connotations,” said Chris George, Nokia’s head of brand architecture, on Nokia’s official blog. “The results showed that over 60 percent of Spanish consumers thought (Lumia) was a great name for mobile technology. They thought firstly of ‘light’ and ‘style’ rather than the more obscure, negative meaning.”

Global brands must learn “wisdom to know the difference”

Ultimately, usage and meaning of names and symbols are often ruled by popularity. If a brand is lucky like Facebook has been with its thumbs-up symbol, the brand’s rising popularity will trump existing negative meanings. Other bands like Nokia’s Lumia may not see much competition from an ancient and obscure definition that has long fallen out of popular use. On the other hand, other brands may see there is literally nothing they can do to overcome popular associations with a particular name or symbol. Some organizations like the Raelian Movement will persist with religious zeal in an uphill battle to change public perception, while many smart, for-profit brands like Isis will make appropriate adjustments and rebrand as necessary.

In situations like these, we can hope to apply the lesson eloquently stated in the well-known Serenity Prayer, which reads, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.”

Adam Wooten is CEO of AccuLing, a translation services company he co-founded with technology developer Western Standard. He also teaches localization and translation courses at Brigham Young University. Email: adam@acculing.com. Twitter: @AdamWooten

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