Lost in Translation: What we can learn from 4 epic cultural design fails

Kyra Harrington

Keeping brand messaging on target can get tricky when entering the international marketplace. Cultural idioms and images that may exist in one culture may not translate well to another and – worse – may even carry an unintended negative connotation.

Here we’ll take a look (and laugh a little) at 4 cases where the brand’s message got lost or even reversed when attempting to reach consumers in another culture.

1. Panasonic talks dirty

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When breaking into the competitive PC market in the mid-1990s, the Japanese electronics giant Panasonic decided to go with the cute approach and enlisted the help of popular and well-recognized cartoon character Woody Woodpecker.

After jumping through hoops to secure the legal rights to the cartoon’s image and voice, Panasonic nicknamed its new touch screen device “the Woody” and (as if that weren’t bad enough) went with the slogan “Touch Woody” for its automatic web-browsing feature.

It seems that nobody on Panasonic’s marketing team was aware of the sexual connotations of the tag line until after the campaign had launched.

2. KFC stumbles in Asia

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Fast food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken made two errors when attempting to enter Asian markets in the 1980s. The first was finding a way to translate its familiar “Finger lickin’ good” slogan into Chinese. Seems that the old Southern down home tag line translated as “Eat your fingers off” in Chinese.

After some tweaks, however, the chicken chain recouped (or re-cooped) and now has more than 4,000 locations in China today. Their second and perhaps less well known error was to serve Chinese fish-fed fowl at its Hong Kong locations. Seems the chicken tasted more like fish and was not a crowd favorite. It would be a decade before KFC reopened in Hong Kong.

3. Braniff gets naked

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In the competitive and often shifting airline marketplace, Braniff sought to distinguish itself by highlighting its luxury features, among them its leather seats. But it turned out that the airline’s slogan, “Fly in leather,” did not fly quite as well in Latin American markets. In Mexico in particular, the slogan “Vuela en Cuero” was virtually indistinguishable from “Vuela en Cueros” (which means “Fly naked”). While the slogan may have appealed to nudists, and may have made security lines move more quickly, it was far from the message Braniff had intended to convey.

4. Baby talk

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When diaper maker Pampers attempted to enter the Japanese market, it did so with the familiar image of stork carrying a bundle of joy. Unfortunately for Pampers, the whole “stork brings baby” story doesn’t exist in Japan. So many parents and parents-to-be found the imagery confusing and frankly a bit unsettling—given that it wasn’t clear whether the stork was bringing the baby or taking it away. Oops. We’ll call that a blowout.

Avoiding the pitfalls

When designing for the international marketplace, remember that culture affects even the most subtle choices. Each culture has its own particular customs, taboos, and hot button issues.

So do your homework. Consider a global brand assessment study to see how your brand’s logo and copy will be received in the new market. Are your logos’ colors, shapes and symbols effective proponents for your brand or do they have negative connotations?

Keep your message simple and focus on the benefits. Avoid idioms and slang terms that may not translate effectively. Consult with those within the target culture during the early phases of the campaign – and keep the snark to a minimum. What might be witty sarcasm in your mind may be offensive to your potential customer.

Have you ever had to design for a different culture? Share you story in the comments!

The author

Kyra Harrington
Kyra Harrington

Hailing from Amsterdam, she brings along a healthy obsession with stroopwafels and Dutch grandma-bikes. In her spare time, you'll find her riding around the city (enjoying the views more than the hills) and reading tacky crime novels.

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