What’s in a name? Quite a web of associations, actually – sorry Shakespeare.

Taking your product or service across borders is an exciting step. So exciting, apparently, that even some of the biggest names forget the golden cross-cultural rule in marketing: context and nuance are everything. 

Introducing marketing blunders part 2: marketing mistranslations – a little light entertainment to help ease lockdown boredom, plus some handy learnings…

HSBC: a call to inaction 

In 2008, HSBC marked its expansion into the international market with a costly communicative hiccup. 

The translation of the slogan used in the brand’s original US campaign – “Assume Nothing” – fell afoul of subtle linguistic deviations, and the once punchy strapline read as “Do nothing” in several countries.

HSBC hastily shelled out $10 million to fix the mistake, rebranding with a new (more readily translatable) international slogan: “The world’s private bank.” Much better. 

Yellow Pages: culinary confusion  

Back in 2015, someone failed to check the creative behind a Toronto-based campaign for Yellow Pages. 

A subway billboard advertising the Yellow Pages phone app featured a bowl of noodles, accompanied by the statement: “Find out if Bi Bim Bap tastes as fun as it sounds.”

The catch? Bibimbap, a term which directly translates as “mixed rice,” is a Korean dish made with – you guessed it – rice, not noodles. 

Marketing mistranslations: bowl of Bibimbap

Facebook post quoted by CBC Canada pithily summarised the misfire: “Think about having the copy about the best pasta in town and the icon is pizza. It’s that weird.”

Pepsi: an impossible promise

When Pepsi entered the Chinese market, it joined the ranks of many household names who’ve struggled to translate copy into Chinese accurately. 

Hoping to convey the energy-boosting effect of its fizzy beverage, Pepsi decided to launch with the slogan: “Pepsi Brings You Back to Life.” The Chinese translation wasn’t vetted sufficiently, and Pepsi’s campaign instead kicked off with an impossible pledge to customers: “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.”

The mistranslation was particularly unfortunate as ancestor worship plays an important role in Chinese culture.

Fiat: a PR nightmare

In a global market, brands should always remember: digital is borderless. 

It’s possible Fiat overlooked this when they created a commercial for the Lancia Delta, one they only planned on airing in Europe. 

Charismatic actor Richard Gere was selected as the star, but it seems Fiat forgot to factor in his background campaigning for Tibetan independence when crafting the narrative for the ad. 

It depicts Gere driving from Hollywood to the Dalai Lama’s former residence in Tibet, Potala Palace, where he encounters a child wearing a Tibetan monk’s attire; the two immerse their hands in the Himalayan snow, and a slogan appears: “The power to be different.”

Snowy Himalayas

The clip made its way online and caused outrage in China after being viewed by some as a thinly veiled message of support for Tibetan independence. Fiat apologised, but the damage was done. 

Pampers: perplexing packaging 

When Procter & Gamble launched Pampers in Japan, they used their well-known logo on the product packaging: a stork delivering nappies. The product tanked. 

Why? The brand neglected to check whether its Japanese audience was familiar with the stork’s mythic baby courier status – one Western customers knew well. After some long-overdue market research, it transpired that Japanese parents found the avian imagery confusing, and even a little concerning.

A peach would have gone down better. A popular Japanese myth tells the tale of Momotarō, a hero birthed by a giant peach. 

Marketing mistranslations: stork

3 key take-aways

So, what can we learn from these marketing mistranslations?

1. One size does not fit all

When going international with a campaign, it’s best to avoid a cut, paste, and translate approach. Anything from words to gestures can carry a variety of associations contingent on location and culture – the devil’s in the detail.

2. Research is your best friend

Localised, impactful messaging is shaped by thoughtful, extensive research. Consulting experts fluent in the country’s language, dialects, and culture can be incredibly helpful; for additional insights and feedback, you could consider using focus groups. 

3. Sensitivity is key 

It’s always wise to shape your campaigns around cultural sensitivities, tapping into your audience’s unique needs and values to craft messaging that resonates.

Prayer

We hope you found this article on marketing mistranslations useful. If you’re interested in finding out more, we’re always happy to chat, just drop us a line. Stay safe!

Written by. Amalie Bleackley

Amalie Bleackley