You have a successful brand in your home country. Congratulations! Marketing is expensive and a tricky field to successfully navigate. But now you want to expand into new markets. Well, you’ve already done the difficult bit, right? It’s just a case of launching your brand in the new country and watching the money roll in.
Not so fast.
Cultural differences aren’t necessarily something we think about much these days, especially since the internet has created a global market that is largely devoid of cultural restrictions. But, as these companies and brands will tell you, it isn’t always that easy…
1: Ford Pinto
The Ford Motor Company began manufacturing the Pinto in the early 1970s in the US as a response to the waves of small, compact cars being imported from Japan. It was reasonably successful for a while, and Ford decided to expand their market in South America.
It flopped. No one in Brazil wanted it. Ford investigated and discovered, to their embarrassment, that Pinto, in Brazil, was a slang term for ‘small male genitals’. Needless to say, this was not the image Ford wished to portray, so were forced to spend out on rebranding the Pinto as the Corcel (meaning ‘horse’).
2: German ‘Mist’
This is an extended problem, more to do with language than marketing. You see, the German language shares a root with the English language, so many words have very similar sounds and spellings. This can cause slight problems, however, when the spelling is identical but the meaning has changed. This was the case for Rolls Royce, Clairol and several other companies who all tried to market products with the word ‘mist’ in the title.
Rolls Royce began marketing their Silver Mist model in Germany before coming to the realisation that ‘mist’ in German means ‘manure’. They promptly changed the model name to the now iconic Silver Shadow.
This didn’t stop Clairol from launching their ‘Mist Stick’ curling irons in Germany. Strangely, the German market wasn’t that interested in using the ‘Manure Stick’ on their hair…
In 1999, sportswear firm Umbro announced the release of their new trainers. They called them Zyklon. The strange thing here is that it took almost three years before anyone pointed out the unfortunate associations that the name conjures. For those of you who might not be aware, Zyklon B was the name of the gas used in Nazi concentration camps to murder Jews.
Needless to say, as soon as the news broke, Umbro apologised, claiming that they were unaware of the connection and that the name had been chosen by one of their designers. The wording of the apology was itself a masterclass in diverting blame. “We regret” they said, “that there are people who are offended by the name.”
In the mid-90s, Japanese tech giant Panasonic decided to launch a touch-screen PC in the US. As this was a good decade ahead of the curve. You may be wondering why it never took off. Well, we can probably blame marketing for that. You see, Panasonic decided that the best way to market their product in the States was to use a friendly cartoon mascot. They chose Woody Woodpecker (apparently this character was popular in Japan in the 90s).
Can you guess where this is going?
Their TOUCH screen PC, advertised by WOODY WoodPECKER.
No? Still not getting it?
They chose the slogan “Touch Woody”…
5: Mazda Laputa
The Laputa was named from the novel Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. It is an island inhabited by scientists who cannot function in society as they are entirely obsessed with their scholarly pursuits. A lesson that could have usefully learned by Mazda before trying to market the Laputa in Spanish-speaking countries, because ‘Laputa’ is awfully close to ‘La Puta’, which means ‘The Whore’.
The Laputa joins the ranks of the Nissan Moco (meaning ‘snot’) and the Mitsubishi Pajero (meaning… something that cannot be repeated in polite company). The Mazda MR2 was renamed the MR in France after it was realised that MR2 in French (pronounced ‘em-er-deux’) was worryingly similar in sound to ‘merde’ or ‘merdeux’. If you don’t know what these words mean in French, rest assured that Mazda were right to change it…
Another massive multinational got itself into trouble when it tried to expand into China. Instead of translating the brand name into a local equivalent, Coca-Cola went with a phonetic transcription of their name. They chose Ke-Kou-Ke-La, for reasons best known to themselves, but didn’t bother to check if that collection of syllables meant anything.
It did. The chosen phrase translated roughly to either “Bite the wax tadpole” or “Female horse stuffed with wax”. Coca-Cola rapidly changed to something that translated to “Let your mouth rejoice” (which isn’t much better, in my opinion).
This story has been told many times for years, but sadly it is mostly just an urban myth, according to Coca-Cola themselves. The nonsense phrases above were actually created by local retailers who didn’t really care about the brand, just about finding a phonetic translation. However, the fact that it is so easy to believe (and the phrases do apparently mean what is claimed) highlights the importance of proper marketing research.
So, the lesson here is simple. Check and double check. Having to rebrand is expensive, certainly, but it is still cheaper than releasing a product into a new market and then having to rebrand anyway because you’ve called your product ‘Genital Wart’ or something equally embarrassing. In these days of near-global internet coverage, there really is no excuse not to do your homework.