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The language of luxury

From eNews, September 25, 2008

Virtually every population in the world has at least one thing in common: multinational companies are vying for its attention. From General Mills operating in India to Godiva Chocolate in Paraguay, advertising is one of the most significant expenditures companies make the world over. University of Minnesota researcher Rohini Ahluwalia asks: "To get the most bang for their buck, how should these corporations talk to consumers - in English, their native language, or both?"

Several countries in Southeast Asia, Europe, and North America, among others, have bilingual populations that are fairly fluent in a "foreign" language (typically English or French), as well as at least one local or native language. In new research, Ahluwalia, an associate professor of marketing at the Carlson School of Management, and Aradhna Krishna of the University of Michigan look at the complexity and benefits of advertising to these populations.

"The issue of bilingual consumers is increasingly crucial for multinational corporations," said Ahluwalia. "To someone in Spain, an advertisement for a luxury item from a foreign firm could have a more positive impact if delivered in English or 'Spanglish,' [a mix of English and Spanish], than if it were delivered in only Spanish. Conversely, if the advertised product was a necessity, the native language may be more persuasive."

Advertising language will affect slogan evaluation for foreign corporations, but not for local companies, Ahluwalia shows. To demonstrate the effect, the researchers conducted a study in India where much of the population is fluent in English and Hindi, with both languages viewed favorably. They found that while the Hindi language is associated with "belongingness" (close, friendly, familiar), English is associated with "sophistication" (global, hip, upper class). For a necessary item like laundry detergent, advertisers are better off using the native language for its relatibility. But for luxury items, which can range from chocolate to a brand new car, a mixed-language approach will be more effective.

"People expect mixed language from local companies. But from multinationals, it is unexpected; so a customer's attention is grabbed by the second language in the ad. It makes the ad's language stand out," explains Ahluwalia. "The consumer's focus on the language makes them think about the associations of the language used; that is, what does it seem to convey? Sophistication, modernity, or closeness? This effect could be very favorable for a foreign company selling a discretionary or luxury product."