A classic case of sensory branding?
There’s no doubt about it, English is the world’s lingua franca, but for how long? With the Chinese economy set to eclipse the US by 2020 and the likes of Bangalore knocking out new technology left, right and centre, India’s economy is set to become the largest. Are we really ready for a world where English isn’t the dominant language and the powers that be are not part of the Anglosphere? I’m certainly not, for now least. I tried my hand at learning another language, and that language was Korean. Stemming from a want to fit in and not seem ignorant in my new home, I gave it a good shot. I subsequently ended up mistranslating to the point where I caused offence, telling a taxi driver that “there is no Korea”. This incident was shortly followed by a misunderstanding that resulted in me leaving a shop with 24 doughnuts instead of two. I’m now therefore as guilty as anyone. I visit another country and I expect to be understood when I speak English. And that’s all good for now at least, because the demise of English as the lingua franca won’t happen in my lifetime nor in my children’s. And that’s simply because, as long as English has a place in popular culture, business and branding, it will continue to thrive.
What’s the purpose of language? A question that’s perhaps a little too deep for a creative thinking blog, but in short, its primary use is to convey information or knowledge; a purpose that’s almost entirely functional. Yet, in many non English-speaking countries, why do we see English used in branding so often without purpose or function?
What’s the appeal?
A brand’s image is arguably the most important thing when ensuring a product sells. And in Asia, English sells. Fact. But it works both ways – just look at Superdry. Ask a Japanese national what Superdry is and you couldn’t really blame them for reaching the seemingly obvious conclusion that it’s a hairdryer brand. Formed in Cheltenham back in the 1980s, the duo behind its conception knew exactly what they were doing when they stitched a meaningless excerpt of Japanese onto the arm of a jacket for the first time. Put simply, other languages are attractive to the non-native eye. As humans processing language, our senses are all connected. When we come across a sentence written on a t-shirt that reads ‘lads on tour, 2017’, obviously, we try our utmost to ignore such tomfoolery, yet our innate ability to process language kicks in as we parse and process a string of symbols we recognise. And that’s because (try as we might) we cannot turn off our ability to understand language, unless of course, it’s a language we point blank do not understand. We’re just born this way. Our friend Noam Chomsky put it best with his theory of Universal Grammar which advocates that language acquisition is hard wired in us from birth. Therefore, when we see the likes of “極度乾燥” stitched onto a shirt, we allow our senses to appreciate the physical attributes of the brand, rather than any real meaning.
Image source: Flickr
“English is a beautiful language” – said no one, ever.
More often than not, the level of nonsensicality in the English used doesn’t matter because it still looks good to the non-native eye. You’ll find it used for decorative and fashion purposes, but you’ll also find it in printed communications like magazines and billboards. A study conducted at the Florida Institute of Technology in Australia showed that Korean business students only understood 58.5% of the most commonly used English words in a Korean magazine. That’s pretty low considering the study was based on a business school comprised of Korea’s brightest young minds who were exposed to English daily – testament further to the theory that English is so often used for its aesthetic appeal. The survey concluded that the use of English was deemed novel or exotic and was appealing regardless of comprehension.
Sadly, I noticed in Korea that there seemed to be a correlation between wealth and an ability to speak fluent English, and this is somewhat reflected in elements of branding. Using English in your branding hints at a degree of intellect and international status. This fact alone makes it abundantly clear why it is used by global brands like Samsung and Kia, but why when I ambled the streets of Seoul did I trip over billboards and family-run restaurants displaying things like these (handily documented on my phone)?
Poetic, but what does this even mean?
Can’t walk, can’t run – now what?
It’s fair to say that the branding here is confused. Whether or not they genuinely thought Nairobi was in Italy, or Italy was in Nairobi I’ll never know, but what’s clear is their love of zebraprint.
Who’s the target market?
You’d think that by using English to brand a product in Korea you are isolating a large proportion of certain target markets. Wrong. Those companies using English in their branding are not targeting English-speaking Koreans. Put simply, they’re targeting the senses of anyone who has the ability to look and listen. The appeal of language goes beyond its physical appearance, as the infatuation can be phonetic (the sound of the word) or even derived emotively from the meaning of the word. By the time I left Korea, I’d lost count of the number of restaurants that had lured me in under false pretence, with English plastered across the exterior plucked straight from the pages of a novel, only to get inside and be presented with staff who only speak Korean, and no menus in English.
English is also used across the verbal communications of Asian brands. One of the most famous examples of this in Korean advertising was when actress and model, Jessica Alba, starred in an advert with Hyori Lee promoting Isa Knox, a Korean cosmetics brand. The background music throughout contains English lyrics, and as the advert ends, the brand’s logo is also revealed in English. Google doesn’t dominate Korea. A quick search on their equivalent, Naver Trends, shows that in Korea, the Korean language version of the brand, 이자녹스, dominates search, and searches for the English version are basically non-existent. An interesting find when you consider their brand actively chooses to promote itself using the Romanised alphabet.
Moreover, logging onto the brand’s homepage, it’s an assault on the senses to those who don’t read Korean, adding final confirmation that Asia really does love English for its aesthetic appeal.
Banner image source: Flickr