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Funny but Costly Localization Mistakes

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You want to increase your market share, profits, and presence, so you decide to expand into a new market. Your team spends an incredible amount of time and money determining which market to enter. Your brand is molded to fit into your prospective market while maintaining its integrity, and the research backs that it is relevant, appropriate, and remarkable.

Now it’s time to localize it. Manuals, advertising, websites, campaigns, portfolios, labels, collateral, software—all need to be reproduced in your target market’s language, as well as for your target market’s culture.

Over the last half century we have seen an abundance of corporations, driven by costs and enabled by advancing technologies, take their products global, only to make huge mistakes that are costly in terms of revenue, brand, and opportunity. Many of those mistakes take place in the mad rush to localize and translate materials.

In this article we will look at several cases where corporations failed to take advantage of translation, went to market with careless translations, or made cultural mistakes in the translations that were deemed offensive to their prospective consumers.


It is commonly believed that, due to the popularity of English as a second language, products can succeed in foreign language markets without translation. Though this level of ignorance is less frequent today in terms of consumer products, it still resonates in the business world. We have learned from corporations that have come before us that though buyers may be able to speak your language, they’ll trust your product more if it speaks theirs—and trust is a virtue that you can take to the bank.

<? echo $title; ?>Take, for instance, Apple’s entrance into the Japanese market. In an effort to beat IBM to the market, they failed to adapt their computers to Japanese requirements or to translate their user manual into Japanese. Apple’s “first-to-market” advantage and market share were quickly lost to IBM, which took a more customized approach and did their homework.

Sometimes your failure to translate can even produce legal ramifications. SC Johnson was fined for “exporting nine pesticides without translating usage instructions into the importing countries’ principal languages.”

But probably one of the most widespread lack-of-translation mistakes is in brand names.

When Starbucks Coffee introduced one of their most popular holiday lattes, the Gingerbread Latte, to the German market, it should have been an easy win. Gingerbread is an incredibly popular holiday treat in Germany; in fact, the tradition of building gingerbread houses was brought to North America by the Germans. However, to the surprise of many Starbucks stakeholders, their latte was hugely unpopular. The reason: Starbucks failed to translate “gingerbread” into German. The following winter season they began selling the Lebkuchen Latte, and sales flourished.

<? echo $title; ?>Oh, but it gets better. “Latte” itself is a rather risque term in Germany. The Italian word means milk, and in English it has become synonymous with the coffee-based beverage. In German, the traditional meaning of “latte” is pole, but in slang it is synonymous with a male erection. To the amusement of Germans, Starbucks has continued to sell their lattes without translation.

There are numerous examples of brand names that haven’t played well overseas: Vicks Cough Drops had to change their name to Wicks in the German market because the pronunciation was too close to a vulgar term for sexual penetration; Puffs brand tissues didn’t play well in the German market either, where “puff” is a colloquialism for a brothel, nor in the British market where “puff” sounds similar to a coarse term for homosexuals.

And sometimes companies, against all odds, still get it wrong. Ford, with a fully staffed subsidiary in Germany, introduced the Probe, which in German translates to “test” or “rehearsal.” Consumers believed they were purchasing a test car, rather than a real one (David A. Ricks. Blunders in International Business (Kindle Location 411). Kindle Edition.).

We’ve seen this numerous times in advertising on our side of the pond as well. Just consider brands like Nads hair remover and Wang Computers. Or how about the IKEA FARTFULL work bench? Of course our Wii and Fanny Packs have equally delighted the British.

There are a number of popular brands that won’t be coming to the United States anytime soon without a name overhaul. XXXX (Four X) beer from Australia intended to export to the United States until they realized that we already had a well-known product with a similar name. There are a number of Finnish items that won’t be found in the United States, including “Jussipussi” (a brand of bread rolls), “Koff” and “Siff” (beer), and “Super Piss” (a product for unfreezing car doors), as well as their ever popular supermarket chain, “KKK.”


Failure to translate a brand name when localizing it to your target audience is but one way to damage its acceptance. Another is by carelessly translating your brand, slogan, or advertising copy. The folks over at the Jolly Green Giant brand learned this the hard way when they discovered there name had been translated into Arabic for the Saudi Arabian market as the “Intimidating Green Ogre.”

Nike experienced a bit of embarrassment over a commercial in the United States that showed a number of people from various countries repeating their slogan “Just Do It.” They failed to verify that the words being spoken in each language were actually adequate translations. To the delight of many, including Nike’s competition, it was discovered that the Samburu tribesman was actually saying “I don’t want these, give me big shoes.”

Another great mistranslation example comes from a Parker Pens campaign in the Mexican market. Their slogan was “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you”—well thought out considering their previous issues with leaky pens. However, when translating the slogan into Spanish, they mistakenly rendered “embarrass” as “embarazar.” Their new slogan splashed around Mexico was “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant.”

<? echo $title; ?>Mistranslations are classic examples of sloppy marketing, and a quick Internet search will produce a wealth of these treasures. Some of the greats include:

  • KFC’s “Finger-Lickin’ Good” translated into Chinese as “We’ll Eat Your Fingers Off”
  • Coors’ “Turn it Loose” translated into Spanish as “Suffer from Diarrhea”
    The American Dairy Association’s “Got Milk?” translated into Spanish as “Are you lactating?”
  • Pepsi’s “We bring you back to life” translated into Chinese as “We bring your ancestors back from the grave”
  • Braniff Airlines’ “Fly in leather” translated into Spanish as “Fly naked”
  • General Motors’ “Body by Fisher” translated in Belgium as “Corpse by Fisher”
  • Chicken-man Frank Perdue’s slogan, “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken,” translated into Spanish as “It takes a hard man to make a chicken affectionate.”
  • Schweppes Tonic Water was translated into Italian as Schweppes Toilet Water.


We have witnessed a number of blunders relating to language when campaigns go global, but there are also those campaigns that are simply culturally inappropriate from the start. Take for example Fiat’s “Cinquecento” campaign in Spain. Part of the campaign included sending love letters to women to entice them to go check out the car at a dealership. Their attempts to attract the “independent, modern, working woman” actually left those women fearing for their safety, believing that they were being stalked and threatened. These personally addressed letters inviting the recipient to indulge in “a little adventure” after noticing “how [you] glanced interestedly in my direction” did not fare well with spouses either. (David A. Ricks. Blunders in International Business (Kindle Location 522). Kindle Edition.)

Lack of cultural intelligence occasionally makes its way into American advertising. Take for example New York’s Helmsley Palace Hotel. They printed an advertisement stating “In India it’s the Taj Mahal. In New York it’s the Helmsley Palace. Service and appointments fit for royalty – you – our guests.” Unfortunately for Leona Helmsley, guests with the means to occupy one of her rooms are worldly enough to know that the Taj Mahal is a mausoleum, not a hotel.

Stepping on a cultural taboo when taking your product global can be like stepping on a land mine for your campaign. Say, for example, you began airing commercials in Brazil that compared Brazilians to “Americans.” This would be incredibly confusing as Brazilians consider themselves to be Americans. Or, say a pharmaceutical company wanted to take a brand of birth control into Spain. Before starting the campaign, the company should be aware that 94% of the population practices some form of Catholicism, and these beliefs influence basic perceptions and behaviors. Or let’s say a leather goods company was looking to export goods globally. They would probably choose not to do this in India, where cows are considered sacred, or in Argentina, where beef is one of the largest exports and leather is abundant. Fast-food franchises going global would want to remember that Hindus do not eat beef and Muslims do not eat pork.

Working for a translation company, we have seen several examples of cultural issues. Often these examples appear in the graphics associated with the translation project. We worked on a set of brochures for one corporation that was to be translated into Spanish for use in Mexico. The target clients were young to middle-aged women. The graphic, which the content was written for, contained an image of a blonde woman in a snowy landscape with sled dogs. Our client was notified of the potential issue of relatability, and the brochure was modified.

And sometimes the cultural issue isn’t in what you say, but how you say it. We were recently working on a project that involved copy from a doctor’s office to prospective patients for use in Latin America. The client wanted to copy to be very informal and conversational. One linguistic variation that can make text in Spanish more informal is substituting “su” for “tu.” However, in the Latin market it wouldn’t make sense for a professional to speak like this. Though the copy would be conversational, it would be inappropriate for the audience to make it so informal.

If you plan on marketing to a niche language group within the United States, say Latin Americans in Miami or Vietnamese in the Gulf Coast region, it is important to understand that the manner of speaking and cultural context will vary from that of Venezuela or Vietnam. For example, one project we did a couple of years ago involved brochures in Vietnamese for Louisiana in which the client requested that the American names be replaced with traditional Vietnamese names. However, our linguist came back and said that for this population, the Vietnamese take on American names, and that leaving the names on the brochures as they were would be more appropriate.


<? echo $title; ?>For many companies, localizing their products or services for an intended market is like that last 200 meters of a marathon. They’ve spent an immense amount of time and money strategizing about where to go, when to go, and how to go. They’ve consulted experts and conducted market research. They’ve researched the legal, HR, and tax environments as well trade regulations within those countries. They’ve invested in the necessary technology to make their venture a success. Now, they’re on a deadline where every day that they aren’t advertising, promoting, and selling is a loss to their shareholders. This is why we see so many incredibly smart companies make painful errors.

There isn’t a single example given in this article that wouldn’t have been prevented with an ounce of due diligence. As the poet and philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Know your market, and if you don’t, find someone who does. A linguist who specializes in localizing marketing content shouldn’t just know your target market; they should be a part of your target market.


If you are about to take your product or campaign into a new global market and want to get clear on your localization plan, click here to receive a free up to 1 hour consultation ($500 value).

To learn more about doing business globally, visit our blog at To learn more about McElroy Translation’s localization experience, visit our website or give us a call at 800-531-9977.

Published - August 2012

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