How Language Matters in Multi-Cultural Marketing

For the majority of immigrants to a new country, language runs deeply into cultural and personal identities. “Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity – “I am my language.”  But depending on the context, language  choice signals the relevance of social and political affiliation. From a marketing perspective, it requires an approach that extends beyond an either-or scenario.

For example, in the US, an English speaking environment, Spanish speakers may choose to use Spanish to signify themselves as different from the dominant group, while simultaneously creating camaraderie with other Spanish speakers. These choices are made not only within situations, but within conversations (code switching). Code switching can be at once exclusionary and inclusionary, but in areas with a high percentage of Hispanics, it is simply the norm. While outsiders may view code switching or code mixing as a deficiency, those who speak “Spanglish” do not.

Most marketing and advertising runs along the lines of an either-or approach and consequently, it sounds impersonal, detached and unrealistic – it lacks any sense of authenticity and often borders on pandering.  It is the view of an outsider looking in, or it demonstrates a native speaker imposing a sense of linguistic “purity” on the population to whom he/she is speaking.

Any marketer worth his wait in salt needs to be aware of the power of language, not just from the standpoint of formal syntax and vocabulary, but from the sociolinguistic side. It’s easy to create a marketing campaign in Spanish (or Vietnamese or French or Hindi), but that doesn’t mean it translates well.  Learn the context of a language before you take the plunge.


Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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