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Fuschia Hutton

Foreign accent tone of voice: could this technique help communicate your brand’s USP?

When expanding outside your home market, there are a lot of decisions to be made. Not least, how to market your brand in a completely new market, with different cultural references, or a completely different language.

What I’m going to explore today is how you can capitalise on the origin of your brand when marketing to an English-language audience. As a translator, foreign accent tone of voice has always caught my eye and I’ve watched various brands get it right (and wrong).

Your product’s country of origin could be its biggest USP (unique selling proposition), particularly if you sell luxury products that are synonymous with your country. I’m thinking Made in Italy fashion and homewares, French gourmet food and drink, or German cars.

Of course, it also depends on your product. Unfortunately, prejudices do still exist towards some accents. Trying to incorporate a Chinese accent into your tone of voice to sell technology may not have the desired effect because of the long-running association of China with cheap, poorly made goods. But in another context, say tourism or culture, it could work. (On that note – I’d love to see something that challenges prejudices in this way.)

Here I explore some ways you could use to communicate your brand’s origins in a way that connects with your customers.

Unusual word order and unexpected words

While browsing for fun French-inspired cocktail recipes, I stumbled across Chambord’s website and their charmingly cheeky French-accented copy. I’ve written about them before, and they are a fabulous example of how a strong and quirky tone of voice can connect with potential customers.

Chambord have simply written their copy with slight grammatical idiosyncrasies reminiscent of a French speaker with good, if imperfect, English.

‘Here are the Chambord cocktails’ sounds a little awkward to English ears, although it’s perfectly understandable. I can’t help but read it in a cheeky French accent.

And I love the addition of ‘cornichon’ – what is a cornichon anyway? I always have to remind myself when it appears on menus!

Transliterating an accent

Back in middle school, I wrote a piece based on a Jamaican character in a book we were reading. My teacher was delighted at the accent I gave her in my writing, mostly by replacing the ‘th’ sound with ‘d’, and wanted me to perform it to my classmates.

As someone who was relentlessly bullied in middle school, I can say I’m quite glad I dodged that one!

I was reminded of this recently by Old Jamaica’s recent campaign, #tunupdifiyah.

Like my 12-year-old self, they have changed ‘the’ to ‘di’, as well as the spelling of the other words to give their exclamation a laidback Jamaican accent.

And they’re not the only ones to capitalise on the chilled West Indian vibe – think Malibu, which is produced in Barbados.

Picking your word choice straight from the original language

An interesting tactic is to insert a few choice words from the original language into your English copy.

You could even use a bit of word play – as long as you make sure your target audience will actually understand your message.

Stella Artois takes this approach, mixing upper crust English words like ‘splendid’ and ‘superb’ with easily-understood French words like ‘magnifique’ and ‘salut’. The result is an exclusive and good-life voice that doesn’t take its self too seriously.

Foreign accents in copywriting

Click here to see some Stella Artois billboards that I couldn’t reproduce because of copyright. You’ll see it’s something they’ve been doing for decades.

But! Be careful not to go too far

One of the most basic tenets of copywriting is that your messaging has to be crystal clear. Never sacrifice the clarify of your message just to sound clever.

And don’t try to communicate the foreign origins of your product by using Google Translate. That’s just a recipe for disaster. Playing with language takes real skill and needs to be done within the context of the new audience you are trying to sell to.

Also consider the amount of copy you are writing. A few sentences in this style can be attention-grabbing and fun. But expecting customers to read lengthy blogposts or sales pages in non-standard English can backfire. It gets tiring and soon loses its novelty.

Of course, the examples I’ve shown here are all big brands, and will have involved teams of communications and branding experts. But that doesn’t mean that small-to-medium-sized brands can’t emulate it – it’s all about finding the right copywriter who can pull it off well.

What about UK brands using foreign accents?

Mimicking foreign accents in advertising is nothing new. Back in my second year of my Italian degree, when I was battling the past subjunctive, the ‘when’s a your Dolmio day?’ campaign was in full swing.

Later, living with my friend from Southern Spain, Plenty used its Mexican superhero Juan to sell kitchen roll. It was so absorbent, they claimed, you only needed ‘Juan sheet’ (for those not familiar with Spanish pronunciation, ‘Juan’ is pronounced roughly like ‘one’).

She found it pretty naff and patronising. Not to mention perplexing that they obliviously chose a word that, along with ‘beach’, many native Spanish speakers find difficult to pronounce without inadvertently swearing.

And of course, we can’t forget one of the most successful campaigns to date. The wildly popular ‘compare the meerkat’ campaign even led to cuddly Sergei the meerkat spin-offs.

But of course, Plenty weren’t advertising to 20-something Spaniards living in house shares. Just like Dolmio wasn’t advertising its pasta sauce to Marco from Bari who now lives in Barking. It was advertising to middle-aged or older Brits.

But the make up of Britain has changed a lot in the last 10 years, even in the face of Brexit. We are now more ‘woke’ than ever. Anything that could offend or alienate a certain part of the population will (often rightly) find itself at the mercy of commentators and protesters. While these adverts may not appear offensive at first glance, they do perpetuate a stereotype of slightly silly foreginers with comedy accents.

Have you ever considered using accents in your brand’s tone of voice? If not, then hopefully I’ve given you a bit of inspiration so you can see it can be a successful way to communicate the provenance of your brand or products.

  • Hi, Fuschia. I loved the post!
    I agree that accents in marketing may lead to criticism nowadays. People seem to take every reference to other cultures as an insult, which is sad because I’m sure most of the time that’s not the intention behind it.
    In any case, your post was very inspiring right before I start working on a transcreation project that I think will require bits of English in the Spanish copy. I’ll try not to overdo it 🙂

      • That’s hilarious! Feel free to send a photo of that party to my email. 😉

  • I lol’d at the Chinese accent + tech. You’ve got an interesting idea about challenging these stereotypes. I’d love to read about that.

    Agree about Google Translate. I was a science editor in Taiwan. Seen some awful machine translations!

    Your writer’s voice is awesome and engaging, btw. Very insightful. Thank you!

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