5 types of cross-cultural marketing mishaps


An array of cultural obstacles are scattered across the path towards global brand success. As you can imagine, catering for a multicultural global market has created some spectacular marketing blunders over the years, even for the largest and most accomplished multinational organisations. Here, we categorise the types of cross-cultural pot holes that many fall into.

The ‘translation’ blunder

Surprisingly, or perhaps not, the most common cross-cultural marketing blunder is of the translation variety. The textbook example that still gets giggles from marketing-heads to this day is courtesy of Coca Cola. Being one of the first truly multinational corporations, they were also inevitably trailblazers in the marketing-blunder movement.

When Coca-Cola entered the Chinese market in 1927, they sought a spelling for the brand whose characters sounded phonetically similar to ‘’Coca Cola’’. The characters chosen however, ended up reading “Bite the Wax Tadpole” in Mandarin. Learning of the blunder, the soda-giants managed to quickly choose a new set of characters, which read as “Happiness in the Mouth”- a much more fitting depiction of the popular drink.

Rivals Pepsi followed in similar vein. They launched their brand into the Chinese market wielding the slogan, "Pepsi brings you back to life." A clumsy, literal translation led to the phrase being translated to “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.” A bold claim indeed for a beverage company.

The ‘sounds likes’ blunder

Close relative of the translation blunder, the ‘sounds like blunder’ is when a company’s brand name or product name doesn’t quite work with the local tongue. Mercedes Benz had similar problems to Coca Cola penetrating the Chinese market under the brand name "Bensi," which in China sounds like the phrase "rush to die"- not the type of vehicle most would opt for.

Following the US success of their curling iron the "Mist Stick", Clairol decided to launch the product on the European scene, in Germany. In German, unfortunately for Clairol, the word "mist" is slang for manure- mustering a very unappealing image in the minds of German consumers. ‘Irish Mist’ honey Liqueur, and Rolls Royce ‘Silver Mist’ model also had problems in the German market…

The ‘celebrity endorsement’ blunder

Few in the advertising industry would refute the fact that celebrity endorsements are a great way to boost brand awareness. Who you choose however might close down as many markets as it opens. FIAT released an advert in Italy in which a man drives a Lancia Delta from Hollywood to Tibet. The actor- Richard Gere, hated in China for being an outspoken supporter of the Dalai Lama. The Chinese internet forums circulated the ad and voiced their anger, with many rallying behind the call never to buy a FIAT. Bang goes the largest Asian market for the Italian car manufacturers.

The ‘appropriateness’ blunder

Proctor & Gamble are another global giant who’ve witnessed the perils of complacency when taking an idea from one continent to another. They aired an advert that had seen success in the European market in Japan, which depicted a woman taking a bath, her husband casually entering the bathroom and giving her a massage. For the Japanese, the marital themes depicted in this ad were seen as an invasion of privacy, inappropriate behavior, and in very poor taste. An innocent, but perhaps avoidable error to make from the consumer goods corp.

The ‘countries-branding-customs’ blunder

Purveyors of baby food and products Gerber made a rather unnerving cultural slip up when entering the African market. There logo of a cute baby is well-known in the US markets, and was seen as the perfect image to front the products being released in this new frontier. Unbeknown to them however, in certain African countries, products often had the picture of what’s inside ON the label. We can only imagine the look of horror on the faces of the shoppers who saw the cute Gerber baby smiling back at them on the packaging.

These are just a few of the countless comedic reminders of the value of researching your markets when executing cross-cultural marketing campaigns. Working with translators, communications experts, and local marketing teams can help businesses ensure they don’t fall into the cultural pitfalls that have caused more than their fair share of embarrassed businesses.

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