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Cultural Difference Blunders of multinational Companies
When a company decides to expand in global markets, their success depends on how
well their brand is received by customers in each market. But as too many companies
have learned the hard way, executing cross-cultural campaigns is not as easy as
literally translating text from one language to the next, it is important to consider cultural
values, norms, etiquette, humor and slang when establishing a brand presence for
international audiences. The process will likely take some time, considerable research
and additional resources, but global markets are becoming increasingly crucial as
growth opportunities emerge in developing countries. Only because a product
campaign is wildly successful in one country, does not guarantee it will transcend with
global markets. Without the assistance of a qualified, culturally aware team, it’s
challenging to recreate a message that feels authentic and resonates with a foreign
audience. The worst outcome would be if a marketing campaign even harms or insults
the foreign culture which would result in a huge loss of their reputation and therefore a
loss in turnover.
Whether these miscommunications are attributed
unawareness or lack of finances, these so called ‘blunders’ can have damaging
consequences on the brand. By definition, a brand blunder is an error associated with
the branding of a product, especially a new product in a new market. Reasons for such
slips include the lack of understanding of the language, culture and consumer attitudes
in the new market.1 To demonstrate that blunders are quite common in global
marketing activities, the following pages will describe several famous brand blunders
and methods how they could have been prevented.
Pepsi Cola’s Translation Blunder in China
Figure 1: Pepsi’s Translation Blunder in the 1960’s
When Pepsi Cola tried to expand their market in China, they had a terrible time. The
product was good enough, but they just couldn't get their advertising slogans to work
in the Chinese market. Something seemed to get lost in translation.
In the 1950s, Pepsi's slogan was "Be sociable." This was translated as, "Be intimate."
Not exactly a great message considering China's political position in the '50s. Sales
actually went down instead of up.
In the 1960s, Pepsi's slogan was, "Now it's Pepsi for those who think young." That was
translated as, "New Pepsi is for people with the minds of children." Sales fell even
further. Not knowing what else to do, Pepsi hurriedly changed its marketing once again,
but the new "Come alive with Pepsi!" slogan became "Pepsi brings your ancestors
back from the dead." Noting the problem, Pepsi switched to "Come alive! You're in the
Pepsi generation," but this was translated as "Resurrect! Your body will be made of
Pepsi!" At that point the company just plain gave up.
They never did overcome the translation problem. To this day, cola drink sales in China
are dominated by a local brand, Bite the Wax Tadpole.
As obvious and ridiculous it seems how huge multinational firms can even do that small
mistakes, the Chinese language needs more than just a computer or Google’s translate
function. The company could have formed a group of several individuals having a
mother tongue in different Chinese languages. But the key point would have been that
various Chinese from different age groups and accent regions should sit together and
work out the translation, because some slogans can be differently understood by
different generations.
DELTA Airlines and their Football - Giraffe Blunder
The 17th of June 2014 was a day of celebration for the United States men’s national
football team during the football world cup. Ghana, who knocked the U.S. out of back
to back World Cups in 2006 and 2010, were felled. According to the international Press,
the game itself was not the most attractive one to watch, but the celebration was still
justified for the American national team, because the three points were safe, which
was a huge step for them in the group stage.
After defeating Ghana, Delta Airlines, a U.S. American Airline would want to
congratulate the American team on their victory. The airline tweeted out two photos,
each representative of a country–the U.S.A. and Ghana. The score of the match was
superimposed on the pictures. The United States’ photo featured the Statue of Liberty,
the symbol of America’s great promise and opportunity. For Ghana, they chose a
completely different photo; a giraffe. At first it does not sound that suspicious but when
having a closer look to different animals in different countries in Africa it is obvious that
there is not a single giraffe living in Ghana. Only a few minutes after they tweeted the
message it was retweeted by thousands of people making fun of Delta Airlines. After
realizing their blunder, the company instantly deleted the post followed by an
Figure 2: Delta Airlines Blunder – Twitter post and reactions
It was later discovered by Twitter user @dcGisenyi that the image Delta posted was
actually a stock image from the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya; which is over
3,000 miles away from Ghana.2
The Delta Airlines Blunder is a classical blunder example occurred by the lack of
preparation and detailed research within the marketing department or agency. To avoid
these mistakes it is highly necessary to double check every post before tweeting it. It
maybe occurred because one individual, not having profound knowledge of animals,
just assumed that giraffes living everywhere in Africa. The marketing department is
supposed to revise every post within a group or at least two people.
Nike Basketball Shoe Blunder
The American sport apparel company Nike is very famous for their different casual and
sport shoes. For the American National Basketball Association (NBA), Nike is a
sponsor for various teams by providing basketball shoes to their players. A special pair
of basketball shoes during the 1990’s, the Nike Air Bakin’ which is one of Nike’s
Basketball Classics is perhaps one of the most controversial pair of sneakers of alltime. Falling in one of the best years for Nike’s shoe sale of that decade, the Air Bakin’
was a visual standout with the uniquely place waves that adorned the upper and the
funky Black/Red/Yellow colorway (there was also a lesser-known Black/Royal version).
Although the shoe was popular among several famous Basketball players, the Bakin’
has a place in sneakerhead history for a whole different reason. What makes the Nike
Air Bakin’ such a sizzling story is the controversy that arose from the fiery logo on the
heel; it was the word ‘Air’ designed in a fiery motif, but backlash from the Muslim
community for its slight resemblance to ‘Allah’ in Arabic text. The blunder was
discovered by the Council on American-Islamic Relations who demanded that Nike has
to apologize for the use of the logo which forced Nike to recall 38,000 pairs of the shoes
and re-release it with a basic Nike Air logo. The company also agreed to donate a
$50,000 playground to an Islamic elementary school in the United States. Not only was
this a high-performer, but also a scintillating story that is still recalled today.
Figure 3: Nike Basketball shoes with a fiery logo resembling ‘Allah’
In general, during the 1990s, companies did not have a sense for foreign cultures and
religions as they have today. To avoid religion blunders companies should offer their
marketing apartment a training about cultural or religion signs in foreign languages in
order to not avoid certain religions.
Electrolux Vacuum Cleaner Blunder
Figure 4: Electrolux Vacuum Cleaner Advert
Electrolux AB (commonly known as Electrolux) is a Swedish multinational home
appliance manufacturer, headquartered in Stockholm. It is consistently ranked the
world's second largest appliance maker by units sold. Electrolux products sell under a
variety of brand names (including its own), and are primarily major appliances and
vacuum cleaners intended for consumer and professional usage.
Apart from being that successful throughout the past the company ran into a little
trouble trying to persuade the American consumer with an advertising campaign in the
early 1970s. Electrolux took its rhyming phrase “nothing sucks like an Electrolux” and
brought it to America from English-speaking markets overseas. They didn’t know that
the word “sucks” had become a derogatory word in the States. The language barrier
persuaded the firm to turn to a U.S.-based PR firm for future ad campaigns.
Mazda Laputa Car Name Blunder
In 1999, Mazda introduced the “Laputa” minivan. The Laputa was introduced as a sort
of Sports Utility Vehicle/KEI car mix. Mazda derived the name from Jonathan Swift’s
Gulliver’s Travels, however the car had problems in the Spanish and Portuguese
speaking countries given that the word “puta” means prostitute. The ads boasted that
the minivan provided a smooth, comfortable ride, was lightweight and featured an
impact-absorbing body. For obvious reasons, distributors in Spanish and Portuguesespeaking countries insisted that the company rename the vehicle.
Figure 5: Mazda Advertisement of the car Laputa
How to generally avoid Blunders in Social Media / Advertisements
On the one hand, social media is one of the single most powerful marketing tools in
today’s digital age. These readily available tools have the potential to spread brand
messaging to millions of individuals in minutes. On the other hand advertisements
whether they are shown on posters, in TV or Internet spots do also have a wide-range
of customer perception. As stated with the examples above, it is obviously not easy for
companies to avoid cultural blunders or translation blunders from time to time. That is
why the following paragraphs explain how to generally prepare and avoid blunders with
following four easy steps.
1. Understanding Political Tensions
When posting tweets or Facebook updates involving other countries, it is important to
understand the current political climate to avoid stirring any controversy. Soda
conglomerate Coca-Cola failed to do just that at the end of 2015 when the company
posted a seemingly innocuous image of a snow-covered Russia. The well-manner
image sparked a slew of angry responses from Russian users claiming that the
depiction was outdated, leaving out several regions, including Kaliningrad and Crimea.
Coca-Cola apologized several days later through its official page.
2. Being Aware of Foreign Laws
Cultural marketing can go horribly awry if you aren’t aware of promotional laws in
different parts of the world. In an effort to leverage the widespread football culture in
the United Kingdom, Snickers decided to pay Manchester United player Rio Ferdinand,
along with four other social figures, to tweet out images of themselves eating a
Snickers bar with the phrase, “You’re not you when you’re hungry”. The problem,
however, is that in the United Kingdom, if a celebrity is paid to endorse a product, that
information must be disclosed. The social posts caught the eye of the UK’s Office of
Fair Trading, who ultimately investigated the matter. Snickers did come clean,
confirming that all celebrities were paid for the promotional tweets, and the Office of
Fair Trading later cleared the candy company of any wrongdoing. Despite getting let
off, companies should take this as an example of what could happen when they are
not crystal clear on the laws of the area where they advert their products.
3. Be Respectful
MTV may not be known for its intelligent programming or cultural sensitivity, but in
January 2016 the company had to issue not one, but two, apologies after the MTV
Australia Twitter channel posted a culturally insensitive, and what some even
considered racist, tweet to the social network. While Golden Globe presenters Eva
Longoria and America Ferrera were shedding light on Hollywood racism, MTV
Australia tweeted, “Where are the English subtitles?” This spawned a hailstorm of
disgruntled tweets. The original message was removed and an MTV Australia
spokeswoman later told the Huffington Post that it was a “poor joke”.
Figure 6: Original MTV's offensive Tweet
4. Adapt Human Resource Strategy when Adverting in foreign Countries
Often times it is necessary for companies to change their staff or hire additional experts
when going or adverting abroad. For example when expanding business in a foreign
culture it is strongly recommended to employ multilingual individuals for international
negotiations and projects. Furthermore investing into the language and cultural skill of
the work force that is responsible for dealing with foreign markets is a huge step to
avoid blunders and therefore to save a lot of time and money when dealing with
apologizes or lawsuits.