Tue, May 08, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Businesses need to be careful with labels

By Engelbert Altenburger 古堡

In this age of globalization and Anglicization, businessmen and businesswomen find themselves struggling to avoid a minefield of cultural and linguistic misunderstandings. Many times they fail.

Take, for example, Belgium's new Brussels Airlines, which scared off clients with the "b" logo it placed on an Airbus plane. The letter consisted of 13 dots -- an unlucky number that drove away superstitious Italian and US passengers.

Instead of reducing the number of dots to 12 to match the number of stars in the EU flag, one more dot was added to make 14. The airline's officials realized too late that this might drive away Chinese passengers, who pronounce the word "four" the same way as they pronounce "death."

Verbal and nonverbal misunderstandings can severely harm a company's business opportunities. An early example was the brand name chosen by US-based Sunbeam, which marketed a mist-producing hair-curling iron under the name "mist-stick." This was fine for the US market, but not for the exports to Germany, where sales were abysmal.

After mounting an expensive advertising campaign in Germany, Sunbeam finally realized that the word "mist" in German can mean "dung," "rubbish" or "bullshit," while "mist-stick" can mean something like "bastard" in some local dialects. Sunbeam hastily replaced the brand name.

Another example was Chevrolet's attempt to sell its "Nova" model car in Puerto Rico. If Chevrolet had done its homework, it would have realized that "no va" in Spanish roughly translates as "no go."

When the car company became aware of its gaffe, it wisely changed the model's name to "Caribe," although some jokers noted that when pronounced in broken English, the name sounded like "car-I-be."

In Taiwan, internationalization has also led to broken English.

For example, a food product from an unknown manufacturer is incorrectly labeled with "no use" when it should say "not containing."

This isn't a huge problem, as the "no use" label refers to hydrogenated oil. Such oil contains trans-fats, which can be harmful. The "no use" label also refers to preservatives and chemical additives, which can be toxic.

On the other hand, a health product found in Taiwan promises to be of "much use" because it does not contain toxic chemicals. However, consumers could easily misunderstand the label and infer that the product makes "much use" of the harmful chemicals.

Taiwanese businesses need to develop their English labels more carefully to ensure that they convey the correct idea, no matter which cultural and linguistic environment they are sold in.

Engelbert Altenburger is an assistant professor in the international business department of I-Shou University.

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