It shouldn’t be difficult to see that marketing blunders can be disastrous for your brand. They can and will hurt your reputation and your likelihood of successful expansion.
As with all things, the key to localizing your content for a new market is research.
Before you can possibly hope to appeal to the hearts and minds of a new target market in a new country you’re going to really want to focus on how not to send the entirely wrong message.
Localizing software or websites is about way more than simply making sure that your content is translated and reformatted for a new audience. It’s also about making sure that you don’t fail dismally when it comes to reaching out due to cultural differences, slang or historical references.
So I’ve found five examples of localization gone wrong to use as scare tactics – and entertainment – to motivate you to take the correct steps early on.
This is why doing your research before launching internationally is going to be super, super important.
1. KFC in China
American companies have a long history of launching products in China and having their advertising go horribly astray from its intended message. And I’m not just talking about the famous blunders of Coca Cola and Pepsi.
When KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) attempted to launch its chicken-oriented fast food chain in China in the 1980s it was met with a rather humorous reception when its branding was badly proofread and its catchphrase was misinterpreted.
KFC’s catchphrase was (and still is) “fingerlickin’ good”, but languages don’t simply translate one word to another the way a multilingual dictionary might. Instead they can sometimes require an extensive amount of interpretation to convey the same – or at least a similar – meaning.
The end result was a brand new, accidental catchphrase that read something like “eat your fingers off!”. Humorous, and ultimately fairly tame but wrong nonetheless.
By all accounts the blunder was received pretty well and doesn’t appear to have significantly damaged KFC’s sales in China. They are still quite successful there to this day.
Still, these errors might damage your reputation as a serious company and are easily avoided. And to be fair, China is a linguistically complex place, containing more languages than you can shake a stick. But once again, it all boils down to doing one’s research first.
Remember that there’s a big difference between having someone laugh with you and having someone laugh at you.
2. Ford Pinto in Brazil
Languages are complicated things, jam packed with more nuances, implications and innuendos than most of us realize or appreciate.
It’s fascinating really.
Slang isn’t any different. It could potentially be the single most important thing for you to research before launching a poorly translated product into another country.
Perhaps nowhere is this better exemplified than in Brazil.
When American car manufacturer Ford launched its Pinto model in Brazil the product was met with hilarity and mocking.
Pinto, in fact, is often interpreted in Brazilian Portuguese as a reference to a man with tiny genitalia.
This message – while clearly accidental – probably isn’t the message Ford wants to send to potential customers.
In the end, Ford ended up renaming the Pinto to “Corcel”, which translates to “stallion”. Clearly an attempt to compensate.
3. Electrolux in the United States
Not every massive marketing fail happens in the US though.
The Swedish vacuum company Electrolux began marketing its products in the United States and it too failed to do its research of American slang before launching its campaign.
While fun to say, the catch phrase the company chose,”Nothing sucks like an Electrolux,” just didn’t convey an especially strong message about product quality or instil an abundance of confidence in performance.
In case you’re not already aware, “sucks” is a broadly defined, general term implying that something is unfortunate, annoying, frustrating, of low quality or otherwise just bad. It is typically disparaging but not overly offensive.
Electrolux never really took off in the US. I’m not sure that it has to do specifically with with this failure of a catch phrase. It certainly didn’t help its image though.
Then again, Americans sometimes have a slightly twisted taste for disparaging humor, irony, and failures like this may actually enhance sales in some place. But they didn’t in the case of Electrolux.
I wouldn’t recommend trying it yourself, either.
In Southeast China and neighboring countries there is an old practice of dying one’s teeth black with a particular lacquer, a practice that is seen as aesthetically pleasing and has been performed for over 1500 years in Southeast Asia and Japan.
This practice is primarily done by women in these regions but is also occasionally seen among men.
When American toothpaste company Pepsodent began marketing their product in Southeast Asia they clearly could have used an anthropologist, or at least visited the region, before using the slogan “it whitens your teeth”.
You can probably see why the message might not resonate very well with the locals.
5. Iranian brand “Tiz” in Qatar
Not everyone knows that Iran is not an Arabic speaking country, despite its proximity to neighboring Semitic language speakers.
A brand of mens’ razors called “Tiz”, the Farsi word for “sharp”, began expanding its marketing campaigns into its neighbor across the gulf, Qatar. Arabic is spoken in Qatar, not Farsi.
Unfortunately for Tiz, Arabic and Farsi aren’t the same language, they don’t even belong to the same language family!
In fact, English is more closely related to Farsi than Arabic is, both belonging to the Indo-European language family.
But I digress.
In Arabic “Tiz” means “buttocks” and the brand name isn’t the sort of thing that was well received. The name was, as can be expected, promptly changed to “muqdam” or “hero”.
While these events are pretty hilarious to the rest of us, blunders such as these will likely follow these companies for the rest of their lives. It’s probably not something you want happening to you.
Localizing content the correct way, the first time, is key to making your service resonate properly in a new country or region. It also ensures that your product or service doesn’t become an Internet meme.
Also published on Medium.