One can’t help but feel a little sorry for Bel, the French manufacturer of cheese brands such as The Laughing Cow and Baby Bel. The company recently bit off more than it could chew when it decided to incorporate some teenage slang into its branding for the French market.
Apparently, the logo on packs of Baby Bel bore the legend ‘Des vacances de Malade Mental’. In much the same way that American rappers used to use the term ‘ill’ to describe something good, French teenagers are said to use the term ‘malade mental’. In English, a rough translation of the Baby Bel logo might be ‘Having a mental holiday’.
Bel said in a statement that the expression signifies something extraordinary and exceptional in the language currently used by young people.’ A spokesperson for the National Union of Associations of Parents of Mentally Handicapped People and Their Friends thought it signified something else.
Christel Prado, chairwoman of the group, is reported as saying: ‘I am scandalised that Bel should transmit discriminatory values to our children ... Imagine a young person with an intellectual deficiency returning to school in September and being confronted with classmates saying: “Did you have a mentally ill holiday?”’
Bel’s MD is currently apologising copiously while the media are getting stuck in with headlines about big cheeses eating humble pie.
Is there a lesson for Vistage members from this? Yes, trying to associate your product with cool street trends might be a good idea if you make trainers or sell Beats headphones by Dr Dre. It’s less appropriate when trying to sell cheese. Club nights might be ‘banging’ (or at least they were in your correspondent’s heyday) but, unless your target market has a finely tuned sense of irony, then accountancy services probably are not.
The Leith Agency, which does the advertising for Irn Bru, is very clever at selling something as mundane as soft drinks while making the brand appear to be subversive. It is a difficult trick to pull off. Get it wrong and your brand won’t be badass but it may well be busted or butt. Get it badly wrong and it may even blow chunks.
The bottom line? Slang, argot and patois are a minefield and brands shouldn’t step into them without a very good map. In practical terms, the online Urban Dictionary is handy for checking your branding against the latest lingo as is the Online Slang Dictionary.