Decoding Britishisms: Understanding UK Business-Speak for International Marketers

By Fẹ́mi Fálọdún

As an international marketer working in the UK, I've come to realise that navigating the British business landscape is akin to deciphering a secret code. The marketing and communications industry, in particular, is rife with uniquely British acronyms, phrases, terminologies, and euphemisms that can leave even the most seasoned professional who’s new in town scratching their head.

While the UK (especially major cities like London and Manchester) can be one of the most culturally diverse places for a global talent to work, there's still so much culture shock that business professionals experience when they newly start out in the UK. So, for those of you who've recently made the move to the UK, buckle up and get ready for a crash course in British business-speak.

Let's start with the basics. If someone asks you if you have a "tenner," they're not inquiring about your tennis skills. They're simply asking for a £10 note. And if your colleague tells you they're "quite chuffed," don't worry, they're not having a medical emergency. They're just expressing their delight or satisfaction with something. You might hear something like, "Sales are up 20% this month!" followed by, "Absolutely chuffed, old bean! Looks like our new campaign is a right corker!"

But it's not just the slang that can throw you off. British subtlety can be a real minefield. As a Nigerian-born marketing consultant puts it, "Someone might be trying to tell you to absolutely stop doing something because you're overdoing it, and they say something like 'Do you want to take a break?' I could easily say 'No, I'm good' and miss the whole point."

And then there are the pop-culture references. If you're not well-versed in old British TV shows and music––because most of the world has been held in the eternally strong grip of Hollywood and American popular culture––you might find yourself nodding along blankly with confusion when colleagues start quoting a Charles Dickens novel, Monty Python or singing along to The Beatles.

If your boss asks you to come up with a "cheeky" ad campaign, they're not looking for something rude or offensive. They want a campaign with a dose of witty humour or cute surprises. But don’t confuse being ‘cheeky’ with the ‘cheeky chappers’, which would be an informal way of referring to your target audience. You might hear them say, "We need to understand what makes our cheeky chappers tick! Let's do some market research to see what kind of content resonates with them."

And if they suggest "blue skies thinking", they're not inviting you to a summertime picnic. They want you to approach the brainstorming process with creative freedom, unencumbered by limitations in thinking. And during the brainstorming, you might hear, "Alright team, let's take a quick cuppa and come back with some brilliant campaign ideas." That simply means it’s break time. Mind you, a cuppa = cup of… tea, literally.

Perhaps one of the most confusing of all British business-speak revolves around the drinking of tea, a favourite beverage of the country. If a colleague invites you to "have a cuppa" or "have a cuppa and a chinwag," they're not just offering you a hot beverage. They're inviting you to have a casual chat away from work, which may involve discussing the weather as well as serious business matters.

And when it comes to product packaging or storefronts, the Brits love to talk about "kerb appeal." No, they're not referring to the latest fashion trend. They're talking about how visually appealing a physical point of sale is from the perspective of someone standing on the street.

In the world of influencer marketing, you might hear talk of "mummy bloggers." These are social media influencers who target mothers with their content. "Jane the mummy blogger is a marketing goldmine! We need to partner with her to reach our target audience of new parents."

Sometimes, marketing efforts fall flat. In these cases, you might hear terms like "placebo ad" or "rubbish." "Our social media posts haven't been generating much buzz lately. They're starting to feel a bit like placebo ads. Let's spice things up!" Or, "Ugh, this press release is a bit rubbish. Let's rework the messaging to make it more impactful."

Other times, you might hear a bit of gentle ribbing about a competitor's subpar campaign efforts. "That brand's new ad is a right jab, isn't it? All flashy visuals and no real substance." Or, "Did you see that company's new ad campaign? Looks like someone's taking the mickey a bit too hard. We can do much better than that!"

And if someone tells you a project is "on the backburner," don't go looking for it in the kitchen. They're saying it's been pushed down the priority list, even though it's still under consideration. If someone tells you to schedule a meeting for "half four", they don't mean two o'clock which is the half of four, but half-PAST-four. Why they chose to skip the word "past" is always beyond me.

But fear not, my fellow international marketers. With a bit of patience, some Google searches, few more nights going on a bevvy with colleagues (i.e. drinks at the pub), regular consumption of authentic British media, and a healthy dose of humour, you too can decode the mysteries of British business-speak. And who knows, you might even find yourself dropping a few Britishisms of your own in the next meeting.

So, chin wag with your colleagues, hold fire on those big decisions, and remember, if a boss or client asks you to do something by saying "would you like to," they're not really giving you a choice.

Welcome to the wild and wonderful world of work in Britain.

Fẹ́mi Fálọdún is an Executive Director with BlackHouse Media (BHM), an international public relations and communications services company operating in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and the United Kingdom.

As a marketing and communications consultant, Femi has worked with leading multinational brands in Africa across diverse industries, including FMCG, telecommunications, financial services, media, entertainment and technology.

Femi holds a Master of Research degree in Advanced Marketing Management from Lancaster University and is a Chartered Marketer with the CIM. He is currently a doctoral candidate at Kent Business School studying corporate sustainability communication in emerging markets.