IKEA, the assemble-it-yourself furniture and décor King, is facing a problem in its kingdom. Some of their names for their pieces in other languages sound funny, rude, and even crude. IKEA is famous for using some difficult Scandinavian words to describe its goods but as it expands with new markets in different parts of the globe, it’s finding out that those tongue twisters often sound like other, inappropriate words in different languages.
For example, IKEA’s Redalen bed has caused some trouble. As it turns out the word not only refers to a style of bed produced by the company, it’s also a city in Norway and a term relating to sex in Thailand. The retailer opened its newest store, and the fifth largest store in the world, last year in Thailand. And to solve these language snafus has hired a group of native Thai speakers to ensure words like Redelan, or the Jättebra plant pot, yet another inappropriate term for sex, don’t make it to the signs.
Natthita Opaspipat, a 29-year-old, IKEA employee spent four years before opening the Thailand-based branch combing through the language to see how they sounded and what they meant in Thai before translating them into the Sanskrit-based language. At times, it only took changing a vowel or consonant to fix the problem. Swedish teammates helped grilled Opaspipat and other store employees on product names to make sure they pronounce it properly and if it sounds like anything inappropriate the team must tweak the word while keeping the name as close to the original as possible.
According to Opaspipat, the Swedish words are a key element for the brand as they bring a unique flair to the products but that doesn’t mean they want to offend shoppers as they peruse the huge warehouse and munch on those famous meatballs in the restaurant. Especially in a country like Thailand that has a large number of conservative-minded citizens, IKEA risks losing patronage if they don’t police the product names carefully.
The naming practice for IKEA started in the 1950s when the founder, Ingvar Kamprad, created it to help him with his dyslexia. He would use children’s names or Scandinavian town names in place of traditional product codes to help him remember the different products.
As the world opens up as a potential market, IKEA isn’t the only company to face this little hiccup in language translation. There are stories from companies releasing their products all over the world and finding out that the words have inappropriate connotations in different languages. One example is a Britain-based food company called Sharwood. They spent millions creating a curry sauce called Bundh only to find out that for Punjabi speakers, the word sounds like “backside.”
The next time you’re making your way through the endless bedroom sets, living room sets, bedroom sets, and outdoor furniture in the over 40 countries where IKEA has a store, just imagine if those garden fountains were really called “rear end fountains” and you can understand IKEA’s insistence on its language team. The marketing director in Thailand, Lars Svensson, says that with his focus on correct pronunciation in Thailand has helped some Thai speakers to pronounce the words even more accurately than English speakers can though there are some harder ones that will always twist tongues for speakers of any language.