North American companies have a long history of marketing blunders in the international marketplace. The most famous example is GM's attempt to sell the Chevy Nova in Mexico despite the fact that "no va" is Spanish for "no go." That story is old news and has been retold to the point of becoming cliché. In fact, it likely never happened. Instead, it's a lesson for other marketers to heed as they move into new international markets. Unfortunately, that lesson is often ignored.
Baby food manufacturer Gerber has had numerous problems in the international market. First and foremost, "gerber" can be translated from French as "to vomit." Obviously, this is not an advantageous name for a company marketing in any French speaking country. To make matters worse, jars of Gerber baby food depict a picture of a healthy baby on the label. When Gerber tried this same marketing in Africa, horrified Africans assumed Gerber was selling babies as food, instead of food for babies (Creative Translation, n.d.).
In 1987, Braniff Airlines installed leather seats in its coach class in order to bolster lagging sales. Allegedly, the airline used the slogan "Fly in Leather" in their English advertising. When the slogan was translated into Spanish, "vuela en ceuro", Braniff failed to realize that "en cueros" is slang for being naked. In other words, the now defunct airline was encouraging patrons in Spanish speaking countries to "fly naked" (Wilton & Brunetti, 2004).
The case of Orange, a French telecommunications company operating in the UK, is one where the blunder is less about translation and more about culture. In 1994, the brand new telecommunications company rolled out its new marketing slogan across the UK: "The future's bright... the future's Orange." Unfortunately, in Northern Ireland, the term Orange is associated with the Orange Order, a Protestant organization with alleged anti-Catholic sentiments. Therefore, the message in Northern Ireland implied that the future was "Protestant Loyalist." Obviously, this did not sit well with the country's Catholic population ("Branding Strategy Insider," 2008).
Finally, there is the famous story of Coca-Cola's marketing in China. The legend says that Coca-Cola originally used a series of Chinese characters that translated as "bite the wax tadpole." According to Snopes (2007), this story is totally false. When Coca-Cola first entered the Chinese market in 1928, they spent a great deal of time researching Mandarin Chinese in the hopes of finding characters that would sound like the company name without an embarrassing translation. During this process, Chinese shopkeepers created their own signs without regard for how the characters would be translated. This is where the rumors of inappropriate translations arise. This story is consistently retold to illustrate the marketing blunders made by American companies in international markets, but it actually illustrates how even when a company does its due diligence, local forces may work against the company. Incidentally, Coca-Cola eventually settled on four characters that can be translated as "to allow the mouth to rejoice."
Branding Strategy Insider. (2008). Naming Pranks and Blunders. Retrieved January 9, 2008.
Creative Translation. (n.d.). Branding blunders hall of shame. Retrieved January 9, 2008.
Snopes. (2007). Bite the wax tadpole. Retrieved January 9, 2008.
Wilton, D. & Brunetti, I. (2004). Word myths: Debunking linguistic urban legends. New York: Oxford University Press.