The devil is in the detail.
A case in point is a failed billboard ad by McDonald’s that attempted to translate in the Hmong language this tagline, “Coffee gets you up, breakfast gets you going.”
The global giant’s #EpicFail likely occurred at a local level, within the that came up with the idea for the first Hmong campaign, where the finished copy omitted necessary spaces between the words.
What went up on a couple billboards in the Twin Cities a few days ago—to be seen by tens of thousands of Hmong—likely provoked a response similar to the one I had when I saw it: “#@^$%*”?”
Unless McDonald’s intent was to generate this kind of viral campaign (I obviously felt compelled to write about it on my blog site today), I’d say it backfired.
How can a company of that caliber make such a careless mistake in advertising?
Here’s what I think.
THEY DID NOT DO THEIR DUE DILIGENCE TO UNDERSTAND THE CUSTOMER
In the article that I read, the ad agency’s VP made this statement, “We looked at all of the ethnic groups in the Twin Cities and talked about the Hmong consumer and wanted to make sure we were communicating effectively with them.”
I’m no advertising expert.
I don’t have a communications degree.
I’m just a 35-year-old Hmong-American currently living in the Twin Cities.
Who is fluent in English.
And who can also read and write in Hmong.
Who sometimes frequents the McDonald’s drive thru for my bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit meal with a sweet tea.
Who coaches and consults small business owners and solopreneurs on business strategy and marketing.
But what do I know?
Perhaps the thing that makes me cringe the most—aside from the fact that I am a member of the Hmong community who felt perplexed and personally offended—is that they did not do their due diligence to better understand me (the target customer).
Had they truly done so, this is what they would have known about this target market:
The Hmong language is tonal.
In the written Hmong language, each word ends with a letter that marks the tone used for pronunciation. The tone marker for a root syllable is what gives the word its connotation and meaning.
Therefore, spaces in a sentence are critical and necessary.
This is where the ad campaign mostly went wrong.
It’s like me asking you to read this and tell me what you decipher from it: “asdfghjklqwertyuiopzxcvbnm.”
And if we want to go even further with the linguistics lesson, “Hmong is an analytic SVO language in which adjectives and demonstratives follow the noun,” which means that even if they had inserted the spaces properly, the tagline still would have been lost in translation.
Hmong have been in America for over 35 years.
In addition to the fact that Hmong have been living in America for over 35 years, the Hmong written language has only been in existence a little over 60 years.
This means that the majority of Hmong consumers today would likely be more proficient reading and writing in English than in the Hmong language.
In fact, English is my first language because I was born and raised in America. Though I do not speak Hmong as fluently as many people I know within my inner circle or community, I do have proficiency reading and writing in the Hmong language because of my academic interests. That is a rare exception.
In most cases, Hmong who are fluent in speaking their native tongue typically do not know how to read or write in Hmong and, therefore, prefer to read or write in English.
This is another area the ad campaign went wrong.
Customers who read and write in Hmong are not eating fast food.
#Justsayin. But this is true.
If McDonald’s wanted to pay tribute to the Hmong Community for being loyal patrons of their restaurants, they’re not even speaking to the right demographic.
My parents, who are in their late 60s, can read and write in Hmong. They were part of the generation that learned the written language when it was first developed decades before they moved to America.
They have major health issues mostly related to high cholesterol and high blood pressure. My mom lives with a kidney transplant and eats a low sodium diet. It is fairly certain that she or anyone from that generation would never eat at a fast food restaurant.
Had McDonald’s done their homework, they would have known that my generation (the X’ers) and even the Millennials are frequent patrons of their restaurants. And they would have also known that the majority of this demographic does not read or write in Hmong.
YOU KNOW WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU ASSUME
I’m seriously less irked that they didn’t get the Hmong community right. I mean that does bother me as well, but I understand this isn’t a history or linguistics class testing McDonald’s on their knowledge of Hmong in America.
What aggravates me more is that a global company such as McDonald’s didn’t care to get the customer right.
Be-it a Hmong customer today, a Latino customer tomorrow, or a Somali customer next week.
When you’re marketing your business, it’s as simple as engaging your target audience when you’re doing your market research to help you get your facts straight.
It’s about conveying an effective message that resonates with that target customer, which can evoke the kind of response you want.
C’mon, we’re talking Marketing 101 here.
ASK MORE QUESTIONS
If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid. – Epictetus
What this tells me is that they failed to ask more questions. And clearly did not conduct adequate market research.
Though we may agree that it was with good intent that they created a Hmong consumer campaign, that gesture was clouded by their careless and sloppy execution.
Similar to the reasons I could not stand the Gran Torino movie directed by Clint Eastwood—the depictions of Hmong were extremely cliché and somewhat inaccurate—bad content can ruin a well-intended message.
There are a few simple questions I can already think of off the top of my head that I would have asked:
Who will be reading this ad? A Hmong elder, working professional, college student, or teenager?
Do they read or write in English or another language?
What’s important to the typical Hmong customer? How can we speak to that?
Which McDonald’s tagline would resonate most with the Hmong customer?
If we write in Hmong, how will we ensure it gets translated correctly?
If we display food items, what does the typical Hmong customer order?
I could go on and on with this, but I won’t insult your intelligence. I’m sure you get the point I’m making here.
The criticism I offer is not to claim that McDonald’s is an ignorant racist or anything silly like that.
I’m simply bringing to the surface the fact that sometimes even a very successful well-oiled machine like this global giant can even get something so simple very wrong if they don’t do their due diligence to get their customer right because they failed to ask more compelling questions or pay attention to detail.
This actually is a great reminder for me as to the very specific reasons I broke out of the corporate world to dedicate my life and work to fulfill my passion of helping other small business owners and entrepreneurs to not make these grave mistakes as they’re starting out or going through growing pains.
I’m all about keeping things intimate and being personable. Who wants to be a number?
But what do I know?
What do you think about this oversight?
Photo credit: Alex E. Proimos