News and Insights

Brands Lost in Translation

Kerry Grady, Founding Principal

Cracking into an international market is a goal or most growing corporations. It shouldn’t be that hard, yet even the largest of the multi-nationals run into trouble because of language and cultural differences. For example:

The name Coca-Cola in China was first presented as Ke-kou-ke-la. Unfortunately, the Coke company did not discover until thousands of signs had been printed that the phrase means “bite the wax tadpole” or “female horse stuffed with wax” in China, depending on the dialect. Coke then researched 40,000 Chinese characters and found a close phonetic equivalent, “ko-kou-ko-le”, which can be loosely translated as “happiness in the mouth.”

Another America slogan that was lost in Chinese translation was Kentucky Fried Chicken’s slogan “finger lickin’ good” which was understood to the Chinese as “eat your fingers off.”

Another chicken slogan gone afoul was Frank Perdue’s slogan “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken.” Perdue billboards were placed all over Mexico and featured Frank Perdue holding one of his chickens with the caption that was understood in Spanish as “It takes a hard man to make a chicken aroused.”

In Taiwan, the translation of the Pepsi slogan “Come Alive with the Pepsi Generation” came out as “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead.”

The American slogan for Salem cigarettes, “Salem – Feeling Free,” was translated in the Japanese market into “When smoking Salem, you feel so refreshed that your mind seems to be free and empty.”

When General Motors introduced the Chevy Nova to South America, it was apparently unaware that “no va” means “it won’t go.” After the company figured out why it wasn’t selling any cars, it renamed the model in its Spanish speaking markets as Caribe.

Ford faced a similar problem in Brazil where the Pinto flopped. The company found out after the product launch, that “pinto” was Brazilian slang for “tiny male genitals.” Once the misstep was known, Ford quickly removed all of the “Pinto” nameplates and replaced them with “Corcel” plates – “Corcel” means “horse” in español.

When Parker marketed a ballpoint pen in Mexico, its advertisements were designed to say “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you.” However, the Company mistakenly thought the Spanish Word “embarazar” meant embarrass. Instead, the message was “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant.”

An American T-shirt maker in Miami printed shirts for the Spanish market which promoted the Pope’s visit. Instead of the desired “I Saw the Pope” the shirts read “I Saw the Potato.”

Hunt-Wesson introduced its Big John products in French Canada as “Gros Jos” before finding out that the phrase in French slang means “big breasts.” In this case, however, the translation did not have a noticeable effect on sales. On the other hand, Colgate introduced a toothpaste in France called “Cue”, the same name as a notorious French porno magazine.

Japan’s second largest tourist agency was surprised when it entered English-speaking markets and began to receive requests for unusual sex tours. Upon finding out why, the owners of the Kinki Nippon Tourist Company changed its name.

In an effort to boost orange juice sales in predominantly continental breakfast eating England, a campaign was devised to extoll the drink’s eye-opening, pick-me-up qualities. Hence the slogan, “Orange juice, it gets your pecker up.”

Logo’s like slogans can also signal unentended adverse responses when introduced to a foreign market. I was once asked to participate on a global marketing exercise sponsored by Allstate Insurance. Allstate was looking to return to the iconic cupped hands logo to reinforce their tagline “Your in Good Hands with Allstate”. Company agents based in Italy responded that the logo suggested charity for the poor and would send a confusing message to Italians. Despite the concern, the American Company decided to move forward. – Ma cosa volete che ne sappia

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