What does English stand for around the world?

A word’s meaning can change depending on how you look at it.

Take IKEA’s product names. Danderyd. Kallax. Gnedby. If you don’t speak Swedish, those names don’t help you understand anything about the product. All they do is tell you these are IKEA products, which means they’re Swedish. And if you’re British like me, Swedish stands for efficiency and quality, with a little soupcon of quirk.

If you do speak Swedish, you know that they’re all Swedish places, so your associations will be different. Kallax is in the north, so maybe it makes you think of snow, log fires, Santa.

As the world’s lingua franca, English pops up in just about every country around the world. But as an English-speaking Brit, I’m too immersed to know the job it does beyond these shores. So I asked the experts:

Chiara Grillo, from Italy, a senior marketing manager at Unilever

Radovan Grezo, a creative director working across Czechia and Slovakia

Rita Caeiro, from Portugal, group CRM lead at mobile gaming company Miniclip

And Sandra Leong, from Singapore, UK director of Old Chang Kee (try the curry puffs)

English as a compromise

English is, today, the global language. There are far more native speakers of Mandarin in the world, but if you count the number of people who speak English as a second language it just about has the edge.

So the most common reason to find English abroad is a simple case of mathematics: brands want as many people as possible to understand them.

‘In Singapore, any advert or campaign will run in English,’ says Sandra. ‘It’s the language of instruction in schools and the language of business. If you run a campaign in a different language, it’s because you’re being super targeted.’

According to Rita, English is a useful compromise in Portugal too. But for slightly different reasons: ‘Localisations can be annoying. Especially if they’re done in Brazilian Portuguese for Portuguese Portuguese people.’

In both Singapore and Portugal, though, there’s a little more to English’s popularity than just the sheer numbers.

‘It’s cool to use English,’ says Rita. ‘Especially in gaming and tech.’

English as the language of tech

If French is the language of fashion, Italian the language of food, German the language of engineering, then English seems to be the language of tech.

According to Rita, the language settings in Miniclip’s games are usually set to English as a default. Even for Portuguese gamers.

Which makes sense. So much of the English in tech and gaming is universal, because big tech innovations tend to come out of America. Case in point: a new definition for the word ‘Zoom’ went into the OED in July: ‘To communicate with (a person or group of people) over the internet, typically by video-chatting, using the Zoom application’.

If we all keep video-chatting, and Zoom (the company) holds onto its top spot, you’d expect the ‘using the Zoom application’ bit of the definition to drop off in a few years, and for zooming to become the new googling. Zoom is, of course, a Silicon Valley company. 

English in slogans

Moving onto Czechia and Slovakia, according to Radovan there’s one area where English crops up a lot.

‘Slogans. Particularly for B2B brands,’ he says. ‘Vodafone uses ‘Ready?’, but it looks and feels weird. Like the comms people were adamant it’s a DNT (do not touch), no matter how unreasonable that is.’

Slogans aren’t really writing in the normal sense of the word. When Nike puts ‘Just do it’ at the bottom of an ad, you’re not supposed to say ‘Just do what?’ You don’t process it like a normal sentence, you process it like a logo, or a brand name, or a background colour.

So in a way, it makes sense that Vodafone would stick with the English line. They don’t really care if you know what it means. They just want you to associate the word with them, and get a vague sense of excitement from it.

But if Radovan says it feels weird and unreasonable, might that be a nail in the coffin for English in Czechia and Slovakia?

English in the future

‘Overall, marketers value comprehension,’ says Radovan Grezo. ‘Brands that wanted to be hip once used English, but the novelty and feeling of superiority of the West wore off from the 90s.’

It’s a similar story in Italy.

‘English is used in marketing in Italy,’ says Chiara. ‘But only really when there aren’t any equivalent Italian words (like in tech). Less than half of Italians speak English, so it can come across as intimidating and confusing.’

So, in Italy, as in Czechia and Slovakia, English seems to be losing its cool. And if I were a betting man, I’d say the same could well happen in Singapore.

‘In Singapore, the great leveller isn’t really English – it’s Singlish,’ says Sandra. ‘Which rarely appears in the media because it’s actively discouraged.’

You can control the language brands use in their advertising. But you can’t control the language people use at home. And if Singlish holds onto its popularity, and the government loosens its controls, you’d expect a torrent of Singlish ads, making the English ones look old-fashioned by comparison.

So what have we learned?

Right now, English is the default choice if you’re dealing with multinational audiences. But what’s more interesting, at least to me, is why it still appears in things like slogans and on billboards in countries where English isn’t widely spoken.

The words you choose have two functions: to convey meaning, and to convey feeling. Sometimes that feeling is captured best in a foreign language.

Audi’s slogan is Vorsprung durch Technik. Honda’s is The power of dreams. Mazda’s is Zoom zoom.

In just a few words, each of those lines gives you an idea of the personality of each company.

Compare those with Nissan’s Innovation that excites. To me, that has meaning but no feeling.

If you’re a Nissan, you’re focusing on just the meaning half of the total comms equation. (I’m being unfair – making an extrapolation based on just the slogan – but you get the point.)

If you want to be more of an Audi or a Honda, and make people feel something when they read your words, you need a tone of voice.

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