Jake Sage from the University of Surrey was the winner of our Future of Digital Marketing competition, asking students from across the country what the future of the industry looked like to them in 500-1,000 words. Jake’s article stood out for its originality and wit. Read his entry below:

Talk Qwerty to Me: The Future of Digital Marketing and Language

Let’s break the ice with a joke:

What do you call a broken can opener? I can’t open!

What – you didn’t get it? Well, this joke has been translated out of English and back again using an online translator. In addition to the aforementioned ice-breaking, this joke was used to demonstrate how our content can lose its nuance when translated from a non-native perspective.

Marketers are more than happy to use English as a ‘one size fits all’ language that is intelligible (for the most part) across the whole world. You see, English has a unique place among the languages, and in the world of advertising, English functions as a sort of neutral language for those businesses who don’t want to appear to originate from any one country in particular. It can also be used to represent modernity, globalisation and glamour. So you can see why so many marketers opt to choose English as the default language of their brand.

But there is another way to appear multinational – instead of speaking a universal language, speak using every language. This isn’t anything new. Nearly all websites have options to change the language, and the benefits of doing so are fairly well researched. However, these hardly ever represent the current linguistic state of the world. For one, they often lump location in with language. You choose the option to say you’re in Spain, and the website will be presented in Spanish, but of course this doesn’t take into account the large number of other languages being spoken in Spain, nor the idea that a large number of Spanish people are bilingual – speaking the nationally intelligible Castilian Spanish as well as a local language that they might use with friends and family. This is a common linguistic situation in many parts of the world, but the potential for this in marketing is largely untapped. There is evidence to suggest that certain industries require high levels of trust to be built with the customer in order to be profitable, and the best way to do this is to talk to them in the language they grew up with. Research suggests most people won’t make large purchases in languages they aren’t proficient in. This takes localisation a step further – this tells the consumer that you understand them personally, and that you aren’t defining them by their nationality.

So what predictions am I making?

1 – The fall of English – like all trends, English will go out of style. English will not be able to compete with the more intimate connection that is created by talking to someone in their mother tongue, and as companies begin to become more multilingual, the usefulness of English will decline. Statistics suggest that English currently is used for about 25% of the internet, but this number is in decline as the internet begins to rise in popularity in developing countries.

2 – Websites will begin to reflect the actual state of multilingualism that exists in the world. They will offer one choice of location and a separate choice for language. We mustn’t disregard the rather un-inclusive message we send when we say ‘If you’re in England you must speak English!’

The best sites would be able to cater to user who users whose languages come from diglossic situations, where the ‘high’ language (the widespread, academic one) could be used for branding elements that require prestige, and the ‘low’ language (the familiar, informal one) will be used when a more intimate connection is required. For a local example, look no further than the case of Welsh in Wales.

Marketers have already begun to implement these ideas into advertising. Look at ads for beauty products and you’re likely to see French, ads for cars may use Italian, and English for its part is used with technology-based products. However, my prediction is concerned with the natural progression of this concept to the point where it assumes that for a bilingual person (or multilingual) person; each of their languages has special meaning to them – in other words, each language plays a role. After this, it’s simply a case of matching content with roles.

A study into news sites in Belarus, where Russian and Belarusian are given equal legal and linguistic status, reveals that the language can ‘serve as an indicator of political inclination’ (Sliashynskaya, 2019). What’s more, a 2018 article explores the benefits of a multilingual marketing approach in the case of Wales (Jones, 2018), highlighting the ability to attract attention from a wider audience and facilitating building rapport with consumers.

At the very least, I suspect (and hope) that marketers begin to take language seriously, identifying it as the useful tool that it is. A misguided linguistic approach is like a broken tool, a broken can opener, for example, which digital marketers of the future will tell you is actually called a ‘can’t opener.’

Hanna Sliashynskaya (2019) ‘One nation, two languages’: representations of official languages on multilingual news websites in Belarus, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development

Jones, R., 2018. The Benefits Of Developing A Bilingual Content Marketing Strategy In Wales. [online] Business News Wales.

By Jake Sage of the University of Surrey