International marketing blunders: laugh about them rather than make them

Rob Verschuren May 11, 2020
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Is your product a hit in the Netherlands? Try it in Uzbekistan! No problem at all. Thanks to the internet, you can open a shop there from behind your desk. The only question is: how do you hit the right note with the Uzbeks and avoid blunders that can destroy your efforts before you get the chance to produce results?

Blunder: a usually serious error, caused by carelessness, poor judgment, incomplete analysis, ignorance or confusion.

Before we say a few words about international marketing from our own daily experience, here are some comical examples of where things went wrong, including small and big blunders from naive retailers and multinationals who should have known better.

Where it went wrong with the language

In an attempt to inform tourists that food can be eaten here, a restaurant owner in China decided to translate the word ‘restaurant’ into English. A simple and effective idea, you’d say! Unfortunately, something went wrong with the machine translation, and the eatery now bears the intriguing name: “Translate, server error”.

Another one from the hospitality industry, this sincere advice on the facade of a restaurant in Nairobi: “Customers who find our waitresses rude ought to see the manager!”

A dry cleaning location in Bangkok attracts foreign visitors with the unambiguous incentive: “Drop your trousers here for best results.”

And a doctor in Rome shows his international ambitions with this slightly sexist text above the door: “Specialist in women and other diseases”.

But, not only small businesses can be unintentionally funny. Global brands also have their linguistic glitches.

When Pepsi introduced its slogan “Pepsi Brings You Back to Life” in Taiwan, this claim aroused no little surprise. In the translation, it came out as: “Pepsi Brings You Back from the Grave”.

The Swedish vacuum cleaner giant Elektrolux can also boast a much-quoted linguistic ‘faux pas’. At the head office in Stockholm, the board of directors must have wondered why the brilliant slogan “Nothing sucks like an Elektrolux” did so little for sales success in America.

And when the Italian division of the power multinational Powergen entered the English-speaking market, the URL of the website generally gave the impression that there was a completely new and promising product: “www.powergenitalia.com”.

Cultural misses

When it comes to linguistic mistakes you can still shrug your shoulders and say “well, it’s only advertising.” A more serious error is sinning against cultural conventions because then you only achieve misunderstanding or worse, offend people. Here are a few examples and not from the smallest brands.

For the World Cup in 1994 Heineken had the nice idea to show the flags of the participating countries on the inside of the bottle caps. This produced glowing protests from Saudi Arabia because their the flag contains a religious verse. The association with alcohol was not appreciated and brought the Dutch brewer bad publicity.

In Japan, where the babies are delivered by gigantic peaches, nobody had the slightest notion of what that stork was doing in the Pampers commercial.

Coca-Cola, known for always being extra creative during the holiday season, thought it would be useful to underline its status as number 1 in Russia with a New Year’s wish in the form of a map. They posted it on Russia’s most popular social media network VK and not without result. It yielded the soft drink giant massive criticism because the recently annexed Crimean peninsula was missing on the map. Coca-Cola responded quickly, apologized and produced a new map, this time with the Crimea. And you guessed it: this correction unleashed a storm of protest and called for a boycott in Ukraine. ‘You can never do it right’, they must have sighed in Coca-Cola’s marketing department.

Not a one-off blunder, but an example of cultural self-delusion, is the fiasco of eBay on the Chinese market. Realizing that they had to fight a formidable competitor like Alibaba on their home market, eBay stuck to the website design and the UX principles that had proved so successful in the Western world. They were going to teach those Chinese how thing should be done … But the Chinese and Asians, in general, prefer very different things, such as flashing animations, funny icons and the possibility to haggle with sellers in the chat. Hence, eBay lost the battle before it even started.

Speaking of web design, in this article, you can read how (through a process of trial and error) the BBC came up with responsive web design for its international news site which serves 250 million visitors monthly in 28 different languages. The article offers many useful tips and insights.

Local expertise is indispensable

It is easier to laugh at others’ mistakes than to avoid making them yourself. Expansion in new markets is always a process of trial and error. In “Is your international SEO “local enough”? we highlight how we optimize things like content marketing, keyword research, popularity and social media for local markets. We do not have a special strategy or formula for this; it is very simple: in every country where we are active for our clients, we work closely with local experts, copywriters, social media specialists and other partners in our network. The kind of people who can tell us that in Uzbekistan, you appeal to the older generation in Cyrillic and to the youth, in Latin script. And that for Uzbek minorities outside the country, Arabic offers the best chance of success.