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Lost in Translation: Exploring Cultural Bloopers of International Organisations

As more and more companies do business in international markets, they often encounter unforeseen challenges that can lead to hilarious and, at times, cringe-worthy blunders. It is imperative to triple check your work, making sure you’re taking the necessary cultural perspectives into account. From mistranslations to cultural insensitivities, these unintentional blunders not only offer a good laugh but also serve as valuable lessons for businesses expanding into unfamiliar territories.

We’ve curated a selection of five international marketing bloopers to demonstrate why intercultural competence is imperative in any multicultural engagement or environment. Through the anecdotes, mishaps, and lessons learned, we hope to inspire organisations to embrace cultural diversity, foster meaningful connections, and ultimately, avoid becoming the next headline in the realm of international marketing bloopers.

  • Starting with the global bank, HSBC, we’ll introduce you to their ‘Assume Nothing’ Campaign. Released in 2009, this campaign was a universal marketing campaign aimed at setting the phrase as their new slogan. However, it didn’t take long for them to realise that in some countries, ‘Assume Nothing’ translated to ‘Do Nothing’. People took this negatively, and not long after, HSBC spent $10M to rebrand. Whoops!

 

  • Our next example comes from American Motors (AMC). In the 1970’s they had a car which was named the Matador. Their research found that the name created a sense of excitement for their customers. When releasing the car in Puerto Rico, AMC quickly ran into a problem. The Spanish definition of matador is killer. Because of this, the car struggled to sell in Spanish speaking markets.

 

  • Another car company offers us a good example of international marketing gone wrong. BMW aired a commercial in the United Arab Emirates, and in it they played the UAE national anthem as the Al Ain Football Club gets ready to play. During the anthem the music shuts off and the sound of a car engine cuts through the silence. Players are then seen running out of the stadium and into BMWs. After an outcry on social media, expressing strong concern over the commercialization of the anthem and cultural insensitivity, BMW pulled the ad. They eventually ran an edited version that did not include the anthem. 

 

  • Pampers is an international diaper brand. In efforts to enter the Japanese market, they made a cultural misstep. In at least Europe and the USA, there is a commonly used piece of folklore depicting a stork delivering a baby to its parents. They brought this symbolism to their Japanese marketing campaign, not recognising that it was an unknown story in Japan. This confusion led to Pampers conducting research into bad sales numbers and eventually adjusting their approach.

 

  • Rounding off our list is Pepsi, who for a while was telling the Chinese market that “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave”. This did not go over well as reverence for one’s ancestors is a very important and sacred aspect of Chinese culture. Because of this Coca Cola apparently took over the majority of the market, forcing Pepsi to go back to the drawing board in the Chinese market.

In a multicultural or multilingual working environment, appropriate training in language and intercultural competence becomes a necessity. Developing these skills allows individuals, teams and organisations to enhance their capacity for conducting effective international business. Such development helps create more effective communication, enhanced cultural awareness and increased collaboration. These in turn contribute to the building and maintenance of trust in both brands and the people behind them. By embracing our differences, we can leverage them into advantages.

If you’re curious to learn more, book a free chat with us to talk about how we can enhance the language and communication skills, as well as intercultural competence, of your team or organisation. With language courses offered in 52 languages, we’re confident we have the expertise and experience to meet your needs. Take a look at our language & communication skills offer and our cultural training today!

Paul Van Zanten
Paul is an American intercultural communications professional living in the Netherlands and connecting with his Dutch roots. With a passion for travel, as well as gaining new perspectives and experiences, Paul aims to further his growth, as well as that of others at Language Partners.

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