Language: The tip of an iceberg in marketing

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LANGUAGE, like the tip of the iceberg, is the bit that the captain of a ship can rarely see. From that point of view it is a simple phenomenon that can, however, sink a whole ship.

Language is normally the first and most alarming barrier a marketer encounters when they travel with their brands. In fact, once the marketer gets the language wrong the brand may very well be in big trouble.

Not only does the actual language itself become a barrier, but sometimes translations from other languages may distort the meaning and the message the brand hopes to bring out. I marvel at how some marketers fail to check these translations and go ahead and print brochures and flight advertisements leading to so much embarrassment.

Language is one aspect of culture that marketers should carefully consider in order to ensure that their brands win. I have been exposed to quite a number of cultures and languages from the different countries that I have travelled to in the world, but the one culture that I can almost authoritatively talk about is the culture of the people who hail from Matabeleland, but even then I stand to be corrected.

The Matabeles are a proud people. This stems from the fact that one can retrace their roots right up to the Zulu Kingdom. They belong to royalty and therefore in most instances want to be treated as such. Their language which is largely (note that I said largely) Ndebele is a language that they adore and when addressed in it they relate with the speaker.

I also observe that to a large extent when you address someone by name in their language you are likely to get their attention almost immediately. Any a savvy marketer should know that this is very basic for them to be able to catch the market’s attention and loyalty to their brands. Language use can lead one to be attracted to or to be unattached to a brand.

I went to OK Mart to get some groceries the other day and as I got out of the car I was approached by a young man who hoped to market a can of Formula One Car Waterless Cleaner.

He immediately greeted me in Shona and without even stopping to let me acknowledge the greeting he blabbered on in the same language as I watched in intrigue. After he finished what he was saying and was now waiting for the response my hilarious side kicked in. I then said, Sabona mntanami; ubusithini kanje? (Hello my child, what were you saying again?) He stopped dead in his tracks and said he did not understand Ndebele. I then asked him what made him think I understood Shona?

I got no response and I did not expect one. This I have found to be the case with all these young men and women who market this particular product. I personally am fluent in all the three languages that are commonly used in Zimbabwe and this has benefited me immensely.

I worked in Mashonaland and as a marketer I had to win the business and sometimes English was not the appropriate language to use, the local language had to take precedence. That way I gained the respect and support of my clients because I related to them through the use of their language.

The Formula One Car Cleaner representative was immediately caught with his pants down and he was unable to continue with the sales pitch and win a purchase from me even though I believe in the brand. Actually he reminded me that I needed car shampoo and I went ahead and got myself the Shield Car Shampoo which works just as well.

This is a simple illustration of how language can cost the marketer what otherwise would have been a straight sale. It is unwise for a marketer to impose a language that is not necessarily the official language to a potential client in a region where there is a possibility that the language may not be understood.

Marketers need to pay attention to this aspect which I feel is largely ignored in Zimbabwe. Some sections of the population assume that their language should be spoken and understood by the whole population which is definitely not the case.

That is why it is also important that when business seeks to be represented in the regions where they operate, they consider hiring personnel that understand and speak the language of that region. That way they relate to the culture and sub-cultures of their clients.

Language is a sensitive aspect that must therefore never be ignored when marketers craft strategies for their different geographical markets. Language can make or break the sale. Marketers be wary! Till next week . . . Remain Brand Savvy!