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Lost In Translation: Corporate Failures Abroad

Many American companies want to sell their products in foreign countries to increase revenue. Quite frequently the advertising created in America doesn’t work abroad. Here are a few examples of the difficulties encountered by some of the biggest brands on earth.

  • The name Coca-Cola in China was first translated to “Ke-kou-ke-la.” Unfortunately, the company did not realize that it meant “bite the wax tadpole.” Coke then studied 40,000 Chinese characters and found a closer phonetic equivalent, “ko-kou-ko-le,” which, loosely translated means, “happiness in the mouth.”
  • Also in China, the Kentucky Fried Chicken slogan “finger-lickin’ good” came out as “eat your fingers off.”
  • The American slogan for Salem cigarettes, “Salem – Feeling Free,” got translated for 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 Chevrolet Nova in South America, it was unaware that “no va” means “it won’t go.” After the company figured out why it wasn’t selling any cars there, it revised the name of the car to Caribe.
  • Ford had a similar problem in Brazil with the Pinto. The company found out that Pinto was Brazilian slang for “tiny male genitals”. Ford yanked all the nameplates off the cars and substituted the name Corcel, which means horse.
  • When Parker Pen marketed a ball-point pen in Mexico, its ads were supposed to say “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you.” Unfortunately, the company mistakenly thought the Spanish word “embarazar” meant embarrass. Instead the ads said that “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” in Spanish, the shirts proclaimed “I Saw the Potato.”
  • Hunt-Wesson introduced its Big John products in the French part of Canada as Gros Jos before finding out that the phrase, in slang, means “big breasts.” In this case, however, the name did not seem to impair sales.
  • Japan’s second-largest tourist agency was surprised when it entered American markets and began receiving requests for unusual sex tours. After learning how the name was perceived in the U.S., the owners of Kinki Nippon Tourist Company changed its name.

Marketers must do their homework BEFORE launching their campaigns – to save time, money and avoid what could be a cultural faux pas that has the potential of damaging the brand. Investing in professional translation services and conducting research may add to the expense of a campaign, but it is generally money well spent. With the world becoming a single global village, it pays to be sensitive to the languages and cultures of our neighbors.

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