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Tuesday, 5 June 2012

IKEA's Products Make Shoppers Blush in Thailand

It's a constant source of amusement and delight to me when I hear stories that large retailers have simply not done their homework when trying to take a very successful and really lucrative business model and transplant it cross-culturally. It's as if the proverbial dollar signs have been flashing across their visual/spatial spheres rendering them completely blind to the absurdly obvious. No matter how improbable it may appear at first glance, the following well-known dictum should always be followed: "If something can go wrong, it most certainly will at some point."

[IKEA_2] James 
Hookway/The Wall Street Journal - A local language team transliterates original product names into Thai.

BANGKOK—Is Redalen a) a town in Norway b) a bed sold by Swedish furniture chain IKEA or c) something that sounds uncomfortably close to getting to third base in Thailand? The answer, it turns out, is all three. IKEA is famous for using tongue-twisting Scandinavian names to help identify its sofas and beds. But as the big-box retailer expands into fast-growing new markets, it is discovering that those hard-to-pronounce names can also have other meanings, and that spells trouble in other languages.

Take Thailand, for example. IKEA launched a new superstore here late last year, its fifth-largest in the world. It is packed with shoppers seeking bargains among the flat-pack, assemble-it-yourself furniture or wolfing down Swedish meatballs in the IKEA restaurant. Reading a standard IKEA catalog aloud, though, can draw strange looks, or worse. Besides the Redalen bed, there is the very nice Jättebra plant pot, which can sound in part like a crude Thai term for sex, and a host of other problematic words.

To solve that problem, IKEA is saying adjö (Swedish for adieu) to unintentionally saucy product names, and hej (hello) to a team of Thai speakers who modify terms so they can't be so easily misinterpreted.

IKEA also sells Swedish-style preserves.

"The Swedish…words are important because they bring a unique character to the brand," says one member of the team, Natthita Opaspipat. She spent nearly four years preparing for the launch of IKEA's Bangkok store by carefully scrutinizing terms to see how they sounded in Thai before transliterating them into Thailand's cursive, Sanskrit-influenced alphabet. In some cases, she and other team members change a vowel sound or a consonant to prevent unfortunate misunderstandings.

"We've got to be careful," says the 29-year-old Ms. Natthita. "Some of them can be, well, a little rude." Getting product names lost in translation is becoming more of a problem for companies as the whole world becomes a potential market. There are numerous examples of firms launching, say, a new car, in places such as South America or Greece only to discover the name had some unfortunate connotations.

When the owners of British food company Sharwood's spent millions of dollars launching a new curry sauce in 2003 called Bundh, the firm was deluged with calls from Punjabi speakers who said the new offering sounded like their word for "backside."

Redalen bed

In China, Microsoft's search engine Bing sounds like "illness" or "pancake" when spoken in local dialects, depending on the tone. Microsoft executives there then made the search engine's Chinese name biying, which also referred to a longer Chinese expression you qui bi ying, which roughly means "seek and ye shall find."

The problem, for some companies, goes back decades. When Coca-Cola began looking for a suitable Chinese version of its name after launching the drink there in 1927, it found that some local shopkeepers had produced homemade signs using Chinese characters to replicate the sound of the words "Coca-Cola," without noticing that the characters in combination could be read as "female horse fastened with wax" or "bite the wax tadpole," according to Coca-Cola researchers. Coke tweaked the spelling in such a way as to take on an added meaning: "to permit the mouth to be able to rejoice."

The risks are particularly high for IKEA, which does business in more than 40 countries. It has more than 9,000 Scandinavian terms in its catalog, which is constantly being revised and updated.
IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad introduced the naming system back in the 1950s to help himself cope with dyslexia, using Scandinavian place names or children's names that identify the company's wares instead of dull, easy-to-forget product codes.

But Thailand, for one, has a conservative streak, which means IKEA risks offending sensibilities if it doesn't police its pronunciations. To minimize mishaps, Swedish IKEA employees drilled Ms. Natthita and a handful of other teammates on how to pronounce IKEA's names when dealing with customers. If a word sounds a bit off-color, Ms. Natthita is asked to suggest a slight change while keeping the word as close to its original as possible.

"It's a good system," said Lars Svensson, Bangkok-based marketing director, who appears to relish properly pronouncing words that sound especially unsavory to Thai ears. He says that, with the transliterations, some Thais wind up pronouncing the words more accurately than English speakers who struggle with Swedish. Even so, "there are always going to be a few that trip you up," he says.

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