The Virginia Tourism Board in the United States has a great idea for an advertising campaign. 'Live Passionately' is the centerpiece of their Virginia is for Lovers theme. Now this is an idea with huge Lovemarks potential; emotional, inspiring and intimate. For the icon of their campaign, they used people making a heart shape with their two-hands. That’s sensuality into the mix. Perfect. Just one thing went wrong. It turns out the hand-heart symbol was used by a local gang who had the sale of crack cocaine as the center of its business model. The icon was hastily dropped.
What went wrong here? As usual, hindsight makes it simple. They didn’t dig into the local deep enough and missed an element which was (and fair enough too) foreign to them personally, but influential on local business people and groups whose support they needed. We sometimes forget that influence can be negative as well as positive. This is the kind of mistake some brands make when they move into new markets foreign to them. In these circumstances, some mistranslations (although the suggestion that Coca-Cola phonetically translated its name in China in the 1920s as “bite the wax tadpole” is sadly an urban legend) and social and cultural missteps are not surprising. What the Virginia experience brings home to me are two important lessons. First, you can get it just as wrong in your own backyard as in distant markets, and second, the meaning of an icon can be so distorted that you don’t have to have anything to do with it. Icons are living ideas we need to nurture and protect and can never take for granted.