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Global Perspective: Avoid R-Rated Communications Abroad

5 Feb, 2010 By: Mark Young Response

Mark YoungMany opportunities exist in taking your products abroad. Although the U.S. is still the largest market in the world, many other emerging markets offer vast opportunities for the right products and marketers.

But before you run off to sell your latest product to India, take the time to verify the accuracy of your communications. Believe it or not, many major corporations have failed to take the time to properly translate their names, advertising messages, packaging design and even the instructions that came in the product package.

In terms of language and communication, a relatively small discrepancy can be the difference between saying the right thing and saying something offensive to your foreign customers. Even U.S.-based translation companies can miss the meaning of a word or its relationship in context to the surrounding words due to cultural differences, colloquialisms or religious connotations.

A World of Mistakes
Let’s examine the oral care business. What could go wrong when selling the successful Waterpik over seas? Well, when the product made its way to Denmark, the manufacturer was surprised to find out that the word “Pik” in Danish means male genitals.

How about the beverage business? When Pepsi rolled out in Taiwan, it used its familiar tagline, “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation.” Unfortunately, this catchy, Americanized piece of advertising translates directly to Taiwanese this way: “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead.” Sure, it’s catchy, but it’s not what Pepsi had in mind.

Electronics giant Panasonic came out with a Japanese computer made for Web browsing and licensed the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker to be the Internet guide. The instructions on the screen read, “Touch Woody the Internet pecker.”

Maybe you are thinking of starting your international adventure with our friends to the north. After all, Canadians are lot like us. That’s what the folks at General Motors thought when they began marketing the Buick Lacrosse in Quebec. No one bothered to find out that the term Lacrosse is a popular slang term in Quebec for “self gratification.”

Continuing in Canada, the Hunt Wesson Co. moved its popular line of Big John food products into Quebec with the direct translation “Gros Jos,” which translates to “Big Breasts.”

Baby food giant Gerber has a language problem in both Canada and France since the word Gerber in French means vomit. Beyond the brand name’s translation, Gerber faced an even larger cultural issue in Africa, where it is common to put a picture of what is in the jar on the label. What’s on the front of the iconic Gerber jar? A photo of a cute little baby.

Don’t think that American companies are the ones making all the mistakes. When foreign companies enter the U.S. market, they make their fair share of gaffes. Imagine the surprise when Italian company Powergen built its English-language Web site for battery chargers only to find out people thought it was selling an industrial strength sex toy. How could this happen? Here is the Web domain name they chose:, which stood for Powergen Italia.

A Painful Example
One company was way too smart to fall into all of these language-barrier traps, and it decided to communicate with universal pictures. So the Swedish brand Samarin, an over-the-counter remedy for upset stomachs, did just that.

Samarin used three drawings to describe its product. The first drawing was a man bent forward holding his stomach in pain. Directly to the right of this drawing was the man drinking his Samarin, and on the far right was the man now standing upright and looking happy.

Samarin company principals were drinking their own product by the gallon when their advertising campaign in the Middle East became a spectacular failure. No one noticed an important detail about how people in the Arab world read: from right to left. Oops.

Although these are funny examples, they exhibit the need for every marketer to be concerned about cross-cultural communication. Because when a marketing disaster takes place, you can bet that the blame will land squarely on the marketer’s shoulders.

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