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Lost in Translation? Marketing to Bilingual Consumers

The key to selling products to an ethnically diverse audience may not be as obvious as you think.

Bottom Line: The key to selling products to an ethnically diverse audience may not be as obvious as you think.

Roughly 232 million people live outside their native country, according to United Nations estimates. And nowhere is the long history of this global restlessness and its continuation more obvious than in the U.S., where from 2000 to 2010, in the latest wave of immigration, the number of Hispanic Americans and Asian-Americans increased by 43 percent, the Census Bureau says. This demographic shift, like all the previous ones, brings with it profound political, social, and cultural implications. And for brand marketers, it represents an ongoing conundrum: To what extent should bilingual messages be used to appeal to the increasing number of consumers who have moved to the U.S. from abroad?

Typically, advertisers have defaulted toward advertising in multiple languages, determined by the target audience. But according to a new study, that strategy is a mistake. Some brands take on a symbolic meaning that embodies a particular culture: Think of the way Levi’s jeans or Harley-Davidson choppers are seen around the world as representing the U.S. lifestyle. For products like these, strongly identified with life in the U.S., bilingual advertising could impede rather than buoy sales, the researchers conclude.

For products that are strongly identified with life in the U.S., bilingual advertising could impede sales.

The authors conducted four studies with Hispanic American and Asian-American consumers to determine whether there were systematic differences in how people with mixed ethnicities viewed both bilingual and English-only advertising campaigns for U.S. brands. The participants evaluated the marketing campaigns of well-known clothing and beverage brands — some of which were strongly linked with the U.S. and others of which were culturally ambiguous.

On average, brands that were viewed by participants as symbolic of U.S. style and habits did not benefit from bilingual advertising, the authors found, suggesting that certain firms could be squandering their marketing budget by trying to speak the same language as people with a multicultural background. On the other hand, bilingual campaigns for brands that were culturally generic were considered significantly more compelling by ethnically diverse consumers.

The reason, the authors posit, is rooted in a psychological phenomenon known as bicultural identity integration (BII), which describes the degree to which people perceive their home and host cultures as either compatible or clashing. Acclimatizing to a new country, learning a new language, and adjusting to different societal norms all take time — and during that period, people tend to separate their past and future cultures, sensing a disconnect between the two as they strive to assimilate.

For brands highly linked to the U.S. way of life, bilingual marketing may serve as an unwelcome reminder of this disassociation to people who are relatively new to the country, because the ads contrast their two separate cultural worlds and run counter to the integration they desire. When people are trying to adjust to a new culture, the authors reason, they’re less likely to respond positively to language or symbolic images that have the texture of their previous life.

To appeal to a bicultural audience, the researchers argue, managers of iconic U.S. brands should consider sticking to English in advertising campaigns. In these efforts, they should stress universal values that don’t refer to a particular cultural identity while simultaneously nodding at the way of life in the U.S. and how the brand reflects it.

In contrast, for U.S.-based brands that aren’t thought of as particularly “American,” a bilingual advertising campaign increases the appeal to multicultural consumers, the authors found. However, even in those cases, the researchers concluded from participant responses that marketers could avoid multi-language campaigns by emphasizing the connections between two cultures and actively downplaying the differences.

“Rather than engaging in bilingual advertising, marketers could focus on how their brands help people cross the chasm that separates their two cultural identities,” the authors write. “In doing so, marketers could help different ethnic groups resolve the identity conflict they may face, while improving the appeal of their brands to those with varying levels of acculturation.”

Source:Crossing the Cultural Divide through Bilingual Advertising: The Moderating Role of Brand Cultural Symbolism,” by Umut Kubat (Yildirim Beyazit University) and Vanitha Swaminathan (University of Pittsburgh), International Journal of Research in Marketing, Dec. 2015, vol. 32, no. 4

Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

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