Shift ENGAGE | Purpose Built Creative | Vernacular Advertising in Zimbabwe
Using local Zimbabwean vernacular languages in advertising can be tricky, but here's how we think the dialogue can begin
Vernacular, Local, Language, Culture, Zimbabwe, Advertising, Original, Agency, Marketing, Tradition, Translation
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Word to the Mother
Kutaura lokubhala in the Vernacular

In Zimbabwe, even the recognition of a spoken language is a fertile ground for controversy and aggression, so we’re going to brief with our insights on this one. A simple Google search on the history and spread of Bantu languages in Southern Africa will tell you a lot. Zimbabwe alone has 11 official languages, including Sign Language. South Africa has 9. Zambia goes for gold with 40. Therefore, as a communicator or disseminator of information, the role of language must be top of mind. Always.

Zimbabwe is rife with examples of vernacular advertising gone wrong – much greater than those done right. For the most part, advertisers try to avoid vernacular because it is a minefield. But an agency or company has to be realistic and in-touch; obviously moving away from the idea that everyone understands English, because, no. Mandarin speakers can attest to this – almost all goods are ‘Made in China’ then repackaged, advertised and sold worldwide despite the suspect English they type on it.

Use of local languages in mass communication has to be mindful of dialects and slang and potential embarrassment because different words carry different meanings and weights in different contexts.

For example, when we advertised cigarette brand RG (known as Rudland and George), the campaign made use of the brand initials in communication but firstly, there’s no ‘R’ in the Ndebele language. Challenge. Secondly, the siNdebele word for tobacco, igwayi, has also over time adopted a vulgar slang association so any crafting of message had to be very careful. We’ll let you ask folks from Mat’land about that one. It’s just important to be careful. See the artwork for that campaign here.

Patronizing Much?

Borrowed words and remixed names and words abound. Even words that have English origins have crossed over. The phrases ‘How far?’ and ‘Sharp’ have basically become Zimbabwean vernacular, due to length of time they have been circulating. You can’t just make things up and hope for the best.

While it is accommodating to use colloquialisms, there is a formula to it in order to avoid offensive colonial ‘Chilapa-lapa’ Rhodesian-esque language breakdowns. You just need to read many Beware of Dog signs (‘Basopa lo Inja’) to see that the erosion of vernacular languages has much deeper colonial roots, that will take some untangling. In Zimbabwe, we add to the mix a latent tribalist culture that stems from there as well.

There is a way to be successful when mixing two languages, like SA’s recent Steers adverts: “When you don’t need a blesser elife-ini” which translates to ‘in life’, and which has the benefit of contextual understanding. The SA ad industry seems to be getting the language factor right to a certain extent. While we’re not experts, here’s a few things we’ve picked up:

How to Advertise in the Vernacular 

  1. First of all, do the work. Consult as many native speakers, and if one does exist, someone considered an authority. They exist, believe us. Trust their proofing and pay them for their highly valuable services. Recent uproar over a mobile giant failing to get proofing for its siNdebele text messages shows just important this groundwork is. With the size of their budget and workforce, it’s inexcusable and plain lazy on the part of the Marketing Dept. Yes, we said it.


  1. As for slang, know its place. Not every campaign requires the most up-to-date slang. Often simple, standard language will suffice because remember, slang changes according to time, region and social context. But bottom line, don’t be While it’s fun to jump on the bandwagon for the ‘hot’ local idiom or phrase, if you arrive late at the party, people will be annoyed. And while going ‘grassroots’ may seem appropriate for a brand, assess the need. Sometimes simply borrowing one common, standard word will suffice. Take for example Swift’s Crop Transport Service, known as Mutakuri (meaning simply, carrier). ALL communication around the service has a strong vernacular thrust, but maintains simple English in all executions keeping in mind the different types of farmers from various backgrounds who visit Swift depots and tobacco salesfloors. (Sidenote: every year’s theme is vernacular and the service name has comfortably stuck. We do like the name very much.)


  1. Understand the links between language and culture. In other words, R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Goes back to number 1, where it’s critical to engage to native speakers who will be the intended audience anyway. Understand, and respect dialects, applied not only by cultural grouping, but even between urban and rural, high and low income statuses too.


  1. Testing is essential. Language is complex, so one draft from a Millennial staff member is not enough. Neither is the option of one mature person. Circulate, collate, collect then correct opinions and versions such that you put out the best possible option.

And the award goes to

Vernacular advertising is integral to reaching and including target audiences, involving them in the growth of the brand as they ultimately are exposed to it and make use of it. Wethinks it shouldn’t be a separate category at awards shows, because effective advertising should impact the industry, affect the audience and bring results to the client regardless of the language it’s delivered in. If this is implemented, the vernacular piece of work will never be viewed as less than. Just a thought.

It will be a WHILE until we see accurate vernacular digital instruction, what with Google translate being dubious on a good day. In the meantime, we encourage all communicators to see where they can best tailor vernacular message, then go ahead and do these for us:

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