Translating the Language of Flowers
Did you know that the language of flowers is not universal? We don’t mean the scientific classification or the Latin name, but rather the cultural implications. If you include florals in your marketing images for international content, be sure to consider them to avoid offending or off-putting intended audiences. This extends from the symbolism attached to specific flowers to even, in some markets, the color or number of individual blooms – there may be hidden implications.
As fall approaches here in the U.K. where I’m based, leaves are turning autumnal shades of red, gold, orange, and brown; tender plants are fading away; squirrels are hiding treasured acorns and chestnuts; small birds are once again congregating in the hedgerow, feeding on the blackberries and rose hips. The dahlias are beginning to fade, waiting for the first severe frost. However, one group of flowers still stands proud: chrysanthemums.
Chrysanthemums are simply a flower of autumn or the harvest for people where I live. They are cheerful, colorful blooms as the nights grow longer – friendly, happy flowers with an inimitable scent that carry memories of childhood. You can buy a bunch of mums in florists, at the local farmers’ market, or even in the supermarket.
Chrysanthemums were first cultivated in China more than 2,500 years ago. The name derives either from the Chinese for “October flower” or from Ancient Greek, depending on which history you read. It has long been considered a noble plant in China – one of the “four gentlemen” of Chinese art, along with bamboo, plum trees, and orchids. So noble a plant, that most common people were strictly forbidden to grow them.
These flowers are an integral part of the culture of China, Japan, and Korea – it’s thought that Buddhist monks introduced chrysanthemums to Japan around 400 AD. That country’s imperial seal is a chrysanthemum, and it celebrates the “festival of happiness,” during which the bloom symbolizes the sun and perfection. The “double nine” festival, held on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month (usually in October) in China and territories including Hong Kong and Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam embraces drinks – teas and alcoholic beverages – brewed from the petals. The events also include poems about and displays of chrysanthemums.
So, if the language of this flower is associated with friendship, happiness, and nobility, it’s a good marketing image worldwide, right?
Wrong. The flower has a totally different symbolism in several European countries, including France. I learned this the hard way when bringing a bunch of flowers to a friend’s house at the end of October. The mums were for sale at the local florists store, brightly colored in buckets in the marketplace, and for an Englishwoman, the natural gift to give when invited to dinner. I didn’t know that in France – along with Spain, Italy, and Mexico, among others – chrysanthemums are the traditional flowers of November 1 when they are placed on graves or memorials to loved ones. Definitely not a gift for your host!
While the mistake of a newcomer to a country or region’s traditions and symbolism can be quickly forgiven, a cultural error in marketing imagery can be harder to forget. As well as the species, be aware of the implications of color and number: “The Global Marketer’s Guide to Color Selection” provides very helpful guidance. For example, in Russia a bouquet should comprise of an odd number of flowers, but not a bunch of 13 and never an even number – even numbers are only for funerals. In the UK, it’s white lilies that are evocative of funerals. But carnations are probably to be avoided in Greece, as they are both funeral flowers and thrown at performers at nightclubs (bouzoukia)!
Be sure to include the language of flowers when checking your international campaigns – the symbolism of horticulture might need translating along with your text.
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