Corporate Language
What Language does a German Company Speak?

Linguistic style of a German company
Linguistic style of a German company | © Trueffelpix – Fotolia

The individual linguistic style of a company is an important marketing tool. What significance does the German language have when it comes to the corporate language of a company – especially in view of the way communications are being internationalised? Find out more in this interview with Armin Reins, author and managing director of the Reinsclassen Agency.

Mr Reins, for years now you and your agency have been developing corporate language strategies for large companies. How, exactly, do you go about doing it?
First of all the decisive factor is defining the company’s brand values. This entity that is supposed to speak and communicate – what does it stand for? It is a case of enabling people to sensuously experience the brand assets of a company – also in the written communication. When, for example, a company would like to define its relationship with its clients as a form of partnership, the next question really ought to be – how does a person speak who wants be a partner to someone? This then leads to the establishing of certain guidelines on linguistic style, tonality and choice of words.

In concrete terms, what is actually meant by the word “guidelines”? Does it mean making lists of words that show which ones are allowed and which ones are not?

It is not a matter of word lists, the focus is more on formulation examples. An effort is made to define certain things. For example, are we humorous or serious? Do we use the informal “du” form of address in German or the more formal “Sie”? Do we speak English, or not? Do we act as partners or friends? Or more like experts or helpers?  Are there already words that have been adopted? BMW, for example, has adopted the word “Freude (joy). Nivea is associated with the word “Pflege” (body care). Audi stands for “Technik” (technology). A typical term used by Porsche is “Fahrdynamik“ (driving dynamics) and not “Fahrspaß” (driving fun) – that would be more a word for BMW.

A process of internationalisation

What effects does the decision on adopting or not adopting German as a company’s corporate language have on the staff and the value of the brand?

Armin Reins, author and managing director of the Reinsclassen Agency Armin Reins, author and managing director of the Reinsclassen Agency | © Agentur Reinclassen The effects are quite decisive. The German small to medium–sized sector is at the moment going through a process of internationalisation. Many companies are global leaders in their fields or have the potential to become one of the major players in their field. If you want to be successful in other markets, you, of course, have to think about the influence language has on the way your brand is perceived.

Could you give us an example?

Of course. A German company called Sick from Waldkirch, near Freiburg, consulted us for advice. The company is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of sensors. Sick would now like to establish itself as the world market leader and successfully gain a firm footing on other markets, too. You can imagine that the company’s name – Sick – could well give rise to a certain amount of apprehension in the English–speaking world. We therefore worked out a strategy that actually makes use of this apprehension. 

What was your idea?

First of all we carefully sounded out the brand and, in cooperation with the management, we added a few refinements to the company’s corporate identity. The company of Sick stands for the Germans’ predilection for tinkering around with things in its most extreme form. A Sick engineer is a tinkerer, a crazy backyard boffin, somebody who maybe would actually become sick, if he could not solve a problem. We motivated the company to openly embrace the word “sick”. The idea for the campaign is to use a “sick‑sounding”, crazy claim about what the product can do in the caption and then use the English claim “This is Sick” to refute and offset it. 

A dynamic exchange among all the languages of the world

The companies, then, feel they are under pressure to internationalise the way they communicate?

Yes, although it is actually quite boring to assume, as many people do, that German is only being adapted to English and creating that strain of “Business German” with all those weird aberrations we quite rightly get so upset about. If you take a closer look, you realise that for quite some time now we have been dealing with a situation in which a dynamic exchange among all the languages of the world is taking place. Apart from that, many large companies have quite consciously committed themselves to using German as the language for international brand communication. Porsche, for example, recently decided to stop translating certain technical terms.

Is that a good omen for the future of German as a technical language?

Absolutely. As we already know, there are certain sectors that are dominated by one particular language. Like Latin in the field of medicine or French among wine experts. Now it seems to be the case that sectors, like mechanical engineering, are moving more and more towards using German terms in their international communication. One of the reasons above all is the fact that the terms are very hard to translate. Or the fact that the company enjoys such a strong international standing  – VW, for example, sells “Das Auto” all over the world. 

How do you see the future of German as an international corporate language? Is German going to undergo changes due to international CL strategies?

I do not see German as an international corporate language. What we are going to experience, however, is more and more internationalisation – this will lead to a multi–lingual language. The use of German terms will spread all over the world, but we will also have to absorb new terms from languages that until now have not played a role in our everyday communication. I would not be at all surprised if a few Chinese terms soon started enhancing our vocabulary range.