After almost two years of studying and working in the UK, I still smile at the curious pop culture differences between the States and my adopted homeland.
Take Waldo, for instance. Sorry, Wally. I had a heated argument this morning with two Monocle editors over the bespectacled star of the popular children’s books. As an American, I was convinced that Waldo was “one of us”; a two-dimensional but red-blooded Yank, a cartoon Jack Kerouac with the wind at his back. From Vermont. Maybe Berkeley.
A quick online search showed the error of my ways. I was shamed. Wally is indeed a subject of the Queen. Or at least his creator, Martin Handford, is.
But actually, while indistinguishable in appearance and setting, our hidden hitchhiker takes on a new identity in each country. Parisians pursue Charlie and Norwegians search for Willy. Germans look for Walter while Holger evades the Danes. Wally’s a man with many passports.
He’s not alone.
While sleuthing in Berlin, Tin Tin, the young adventurer, is just Tim with an “m”. And his faithful wire fox terrier, while you might know him (perhaps) as Snowy, goes also by Struppi, sometimes Milou, Tobbi, and even Terry. At my count, he has at least 47 different names.
Behind all of this is a marketer’s urge to appeal to the local tastes of a global audience. The name “Waldo”, of course, wouldn’t resonate with primary school kids in Cameroon. And so the names are altered, tweaked and often swapped completely. It’s the same with brands, planned with the meticulous attention of focus groups and experts attuned to cultural preferences and sensitivities.
Sometimes things get a bit lost in translation.
In Iran you can buy “Barf”, a popular soap and detergent product. The name, which in Farsi means “snow”, is splashed across the box in bright red lettering. In southern China, the French car brand Peugeot sounds awfully close to the local slang word for prostitute.
Generations ago, if a company in New York launched a product offensive to Peruvians, no one would really be the wiser, at least not until it was unloaded in Lima.
Impending PR disasters can now be spotted a mile away by the digital rumblings of a social media storm. Twitter campaigns are launched instantaneously. And online petitions are shared and signed overnight.
While a connected global audience means that someone, somewhere will likely be offended, it also means that marketers can spot a bad name and change course before it’s too late. Sometimes the damage is already done.
But back to Wally. I don’t know why Martin Handford thought the name Waldo would fit the States. I’ve never met a Waldo back home, though I’ve certainly met a Wally or two.
Even so, though British colleagues may giggle when I mention our elusive friend’s American nom de guerre, I’m still not convinced. He’ll always be Waldo to me.