Lost in Translation!

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When branding globally, it’s key to understand not only a company’s culture, but their language. Below we investigate seven different marketing blunders that could have been avoided with a more careful approach toward the studying of their target country’s language and culture.

  1. When Pepsi entered the Chinese market it launched with the slogan ‘Pepsi Brings You Back to Life’. Unfortunately, the company failed to realize that the phrase had been translated as ‘Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back from the Grave’. Not an ideal blunder in a country where reverence for ancestors is an important part of the culture.
  2. When entering China, Coca-Cola first rendered their name as Ke-kou-ke-la. To Coca-Cola’s dismay, many signs had been printed until they realized the phrase could be translated to “bite the wax tadpole,” or “female horse stuffed with wax,” depending on the dialect. Coke eventually found a decent phonetic equivalent, “ko-kou-ko-le,” which can be loosely translated as “happiness in the mouth.”
  3. Electrolux, a Scandinavian vacuum manufacturer, forgot to do their homework when entering the American market. In one of their ad campaigns, they used the slogan “nothing sucks like Electrolux,” not realizing the meaning in American slang.
  4.  When the now defunct Braniff airlines decided they wanted to appeal to first class customers, they created a campaign to promote their leather upholstery in Mexico. Unfortunately the tag line ‘Fly In Leather’ literally translated as ‘Fly Naked’.
  5. Schweppes Tonic Water, when launching their product in Italy, translated their name into Schweppes Toilet Water.
  6. The American slogan for Salem cigarettes, “Salem—Feeling Free,” got translated in the Japanese market into “When smoking Salem, you feel so refreshed that your mind seems to be free and empty.”
  7. Coors Light’s ad campaigns are highly popular and admit I get a kick out of watching their goofy commercials.  Coors decided they would use the same popular slogan, “Turn it Loose”, in Spanish to catch the attention of the Hispanic population.  It just so happens that in Spanish this slogan translates to “Suffer from Diarrhea”.  Ouch, that one hurt.  Something as simple as a language translation can quickly kill an ad campaign.
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3 thoughts on “Lost in Translation!”

  1. Thanks for the post, Sam! I really enjoy it!
    It is difficult for a company to expand globally and translate into another language. However, it is the company’s fault for not researching carefully. It does hurt the company a lot. There are a lot of money on doing business in another country. However, it quickly loses customers’ first impression about the companies. I just read an article about lost in translation. In 1980, KFC opened its first store in Beijing. Its slogan”Finger-lickin’ good” was translated to “Eat your fingers off.” It is a pain!!

  2. I believe such mistakes are fatal to big companies pepsi and coca cola and the other companies you talked about! Also Apple fell in this trap of faulty translation. “This is 7” in Hong Kong was translated to “This is Penis” and the Chinese made fun of apple and iPhone 7 and all media was talking about it. I think companies should hire linguists from the countries they are expanding into to save their skin.

  3. Checking (and re-checking) translations seems like a no-brainer. I’m amazed to see so many firms have made this mistake! Clearly even the biggest brands need a reminder. Thanks for sharing this interesting and entertaining post, Sam.

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