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image that indicates someone is saying sorry across cultures

Global Brand Translation Misfires, Corrected by Culturally Smart Apologies

  |   CultureShocks Blog

 

We have already talked about how lightly brands need to tread in a world where everyone is watching, where companies have unprecedented access not only to an enormous raft of potential consumers, but also to the ever-vigilant eyes of potential critics. “Trial by Twitter” is a process that has found many brands guilty, and unfortunate gaffes are never far from mind. Take Waitrose’s social media misfire last autumn, where its “Reasons” campaign was hijacked and turned on its head by teasing tweeters. Rather than issuing an apology as such, they did feel they had to acknowledge the jocular nature of people’s reactions. Other brands to have faced similar cyber-ribbing have reacted in various ways, either by adopting a similarly ribald tone, or by going on an unrepentant offensive, as this blog post discusses. And we can’t forget the reaction to Nick Clegg’s apology video, which went viral last year and totally undermined his attempt to clear the air with the British electorate.

People around the world apologise in different ways. In Japan, the act of apologising is considered a virtue (more on this later). It is no surprise, therefore, that their language and culture have such a diffuse number of ways to express the sentiment of sorriness. The same cannot always be said of the West, where people can often be found saving face by issuing ‘apologies’ that are entirely devoid of any sincerity or meaning. Or the classic British reflex-action apology, where “sorry” is used so unsparingly that it is roughly akin to “hmmm”.

Whatever the ‘right’ approach, there can be little doubt that the apology is an important art when errors in communication are so easy and public. And things only get more complicated when that apology has to be made across cultures, where different conventions, traditions and politics, not to mention different languages, are at play. Last week, Apple found themselves issuing a public apology to their Chinese customers following criticism from state media outlets about the company’s warranty terms. The apology received extensive news coverage across the country, to the bewilderment of many Chinese people, who found the authorities’ glee at events somewhat baffling compared to the veritable silence over more significant matters of public interest. What was perhaps most interesting about Apple’s apology was the way it was worded – “At the same time,” they said, “we also realize that we have much to learn about operating in China, and how we communicate here.” In this knowledge, a comprehensive global communication audit might have saved any embarrassment, taking advantage of local expertise and insight to achieve a “finger on the pulse” – essential for survival in the modern technology jungle.

As we’ve already mentioned, the cross-cultural apology is a complicated process due to the linguistic, political and cultural considerations that need to be taken on board. Indeed, an episode at the end of 2012 shows the extent of the complications in China, with the reporting of an “apology” made by the new Leader of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping. When arriving late for a speech, he made a comment which literally translates as “made everyone wait a long time”. Does this mean “sorry”? According to the presiding English interpreter, it did. Later on, however, opinion was divided among observers, with some objecting to translations from various international media outlets that played up the “sorry” aspect, while others felt the literal translation – with its more unrepentant connotations – was appropriate.

An extreme example of how cultural conventions can differ came with the public apology offered by Japanese popstar Minami Minegishi following revelations that she had spent the night with her boyfriend. She appeared with a shaved head, begging the public for forgiveness in a traditional act of contrition.

There is no escaping the fact that, were the divas of Europe or the US to so flail themselves for such minor misdemeanours, the blogosphere would be utterly saturated. Yes, it might have been over the top and unnecessary, but it was also on some level based on cultural tradition.

These examples show the challenges faced by brands operating internationally, and the need for expert, sensitive cross-cultural communications strategies. Saying sorry is never easy. Saying sorry across a cultural divide is even harder…

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Transgender Trouble in Thailand for IKEA

  |   CultureShocks Blog

News:

IKEA had to issue an apology after a recent spot launched in Thailand drew criticism from transgender rights groups. Angry activists lambasted the global Swedish brand, claiming the advert, which depicts a transgender lady getting so excited at a bargain in the store that her voice drops a few octaves, much to the surprise of her male companion, played on negative stereotypes and even violated the human rights of the transgender community of south-east Asia. The company have publicly apologised for the video, which aired on Youtube and to commuters on several of the country’s train networks, and issued a prompt response to the Thai Transgender Alliance, who made the original complaint. This sparked further complaints from the transgender community around the world, who poured scorn on what they saw as a demeaning, trivialising and offensive piece of advertising.

 

Behind the news:

The title of the ad translates approximately as “Forget To Keep Hidden” or “Forget To Deceive”, and was presumably intended to alert potential customers to the brand’s honesty and affordability in a light-hearted fashion, a fact they are keen to highlight in their carefully worded response. In Thailand, transgender females, known as Kathoeys or sometimes via the popularised anglicism ‘ladyboys’, are fully integrated and accepted members of society, with many leading successful careers in the fashion, beauty and entertainment industries. They are far from obligated to a deviant or secret lifestyle, thus the uproar caused by the advert. This campaign was a little wide of the mark from IKEA, a brand – as history dictates – do not shy away from courting controversy with provocative ad campaigns. In most cases it is the traditional values of the right that are challenged, as with this brouhaha in the US back in 2007, rather than the liberal and inclusive values championed by an organisation such as the Thai TGA. But creative work designed to provoke and entertain is almost inevitably going to alienate some members of any given market – did they overstep the line here, or is it a storm in a Thai-cup?

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Is 80 yuan the Right Price?

  |   News

In the globalized economy, the chances of a product reaching consumers all over the world are extremely high. But this does not mean that the product can be marketed in the same way. Localizing the product for each individual market is extremely important and so is product pricing.

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