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

Published: Friday, July 18 2014 11:35 a.m. MDT

Isis Mobile Wallet

PR Newswire

Isis seems like a smart idea. I think I might sign up and I am not alone. Many businesses, including Walgreens drug stores and McDonald’s restaurants, are participating.

No, I am not talking about ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the militant group currently rampaging through the Middle East. Isis Wallet is a mobile payment alternative to plastic credit cards. However, the recent infamy of this violent extremist group can be problematic for the innocent payment processor, the anti-trafficking foundation, the scientific association, the academic journal and many other entities that share the name of Isis, the ancient Egyptian goddess.

“However coincidental, we have no interest in sharing a name with a group whose name has become synonymous with violence, and our hearts go out to those who are suffering,” said Michael Abbott, CEO of the mobile wallet provider Isis, in a statement released last week. “As a company, we have made the decision to rebrand. Changing a brand is never easy, but we know this is the right decision — for our company, our partners and our customers.”

Language and meaning change constantly

Meanings and connotations of words and symbols frequently evolve based on current usage, to the delight or irritation of those familiar with the original meaning. This frustration is illustrated well by the BYU comedy show Studio C. A series of sketches featuring a superhero-like character known as Captain Literally highlights how people frequently use the word “literally” when they really mean “figuratively” or “metaphorically.”

“When someone misuses the word literally, it is my job to literalize their reality and restore balance to the universe,” explains Captain Literally, a man who misstated that he is “literally glued to (his) seat.” Captain Literally “restores balance to the universe” by gluing him to his seat. In subsequent sketches, the hero wreaks similar havoc on those who say they are “literally beet red,” “literally the last man standing” or so sick it is “literally like having a flaming porcupine shoved up my nose.”

Although this fictional character resists semantic change, the comedy sketch illustrates that even the Oxford English Dictionary has acknowledged the informal misuse of this word and consequently added it as an alternative definition. This can happen both to other commonly misused words and to brands as meanings evolve with common usage.

Brands are helpless to resist some changes

As mentioned previously in this column, the Studebaker car company introduced the “Dictator” automobile in 1927. Although the name appears to have initially posed no problem, the company dropped the moniker a decade later after, as author Benjamin L. Alpers stated, “a madman (arose) in Europe to give dictators a bad name forever.” Like Isis, the car brand conceded and wisely adapted with the times.

Other groups are more stubborn than Captain Literally. The Raelian Movement earned a lot of criticism for flying a banner bearing of swastika over New York beaches on July Fourth in a religious effort to change public perception during what it calls Swastika Rehabilitation Week. Yes, the swastika and similar characters once held very positive symbolism and still do for many cultures; however, Western culture is unlikely to associate the image with anything other than Nazis for the foreseeable future, and I certainly would not recommend that a business brand associate itself with the symbol based on its original meaning. Even the best of intentions are unlikely to overcome some cultural perceptions.

Other brands can effect change in their favor

Fortunately, not all evolution in meaning is negative. For example, Facebook and other social networks have benefited from the social media giant’s ability to influence public perception for the good of its brand.

“(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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