How one word can make your marketing message go spectacularly wrong  

This month has seen yet another stand-out example of how just one word can make a marketing message go spectacularly wrong. American soft drink giant, Coca Cola, has been on the receiving end of some well-deserved criticism after failing to perform due diligence before advertising in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Auckland Airport was the unlikely setting for this latest linguistic debacle, when Coca Cola’s seemingly innocuous attempt to greet thirsty Kiwi travelers with the words ‘KIA ORA, MATE’ plastered across a drink-vending machine got locals in a lather.

It wasn’t so much the well-known Māori greeting ‘KIA ORA’ that was the problem, but the ‘MATE’, which in Māori is pronounced ‘mah-tay’, meaning ‘dead, deceased or killed’. Quite how (essentially) ‘Welcome, death!’ would revive the spirits of a travel-weary EnZed passenger fresh off a long-haul flight seems to have passed Coca Cola’s marketing team completely by. So far, so embarrassing.

But to add salt to an already a liberally-seasoned wound, umbrage was also taken at the presumption that any self-respecting Kiwi would want to be known as anybody’s ‘mate’ – a term more usually associated with their Aussie rivals across the ditch. As many of the thousands of Twitter devotees keen to join in the hot debate pointed out, ‘KIA ORA, BRO’ would have been far more appropriate.

Which part of Coca Cola’s gaffe caused more offence is hard to know. However, apparently not all Māori speakers were offended. In fact, many praised the company’s attempt to use the language, even if it was a clumsy effort, with one contributor claiming it was ‘impossible to count’ the number of times a day he’d issue a cheery ‘Kia ora, mate’.

But the point is that it was all so avoidable. If only a little more care had been taken, especially when using the language of another culture. Even if you’re not trying to translate, you can still come a cropper. As studies from Finland’s University of Vaasa demonstrate, idioms matter, too. For example, in most of the western world, using the phrase ‘like an owl’ means wisdom and thoughtfulness. Say the same thing in South Asian countries and it refers to extreme absurdity.

Moreover, the university’s studies confirm that a country’s cultural values are one thing, but that these are often inconsistent with consumers’ perceptions of advertising appeal. People in different cultures can use very different frames of reference from their values when it comes to marketing, so it seems. In other words, the whole thing is a miinakenttä. Which is Finnish for ‘minefield’, we’re pretty sure.

So, what’s the lesson here? Whilst it’s clear that the Coca Cola brand isn’t going to suffer hugely as a result of such marketing sloppiness, it does serve as a reminder of the importance of due diligence. Could you own brand survive the potential damage – to reputation, sales and image – if you unwittingly offended your customers?

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