Lost in Translation: Navigating Cultural Communications

For global brands there is arguably nothing more important than investing in a robust, multi-cultural digital/brand strategy. By failing to understand cultural difference, or choosing to take a ‘one size fits all’ approach, even the slightest misunderstanding can cause great offence. Knowing your audience is key, and brushing up on cultural ideologies and colloquialisms can be the difference between success and failure.

Everyone’s heard the saying “First impressions count”. Here are a few examples of brands that perhaps didn’t get off on the best foot:

KFC decided to branch out to China, opening their first restaurant in Beijing, and bringing with them the famous ‘Finger Lickin Good’ slogan. Little did they know, that they had accidentally translated the slogan into ‘Eat your fingers off’ in Chinese. Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it …

Maybe the most ‘ironic’ of all is American beer giant Coors attempting to take its ‘Turn it loose’ campaign to Spain. Through this it becomes apparent that translation tools such as Google Translate simply don’t cut it, as this phrase when translated into Spanish can also be interpreted as ‘Suffer from Diarrhoea’. Awkward…

Making a good first impression however, isn’t always enough. When Pepsi Cola rebranded and changed the colour of its vending machines from dark blue to light (or ‘ice’) blue, they lost the dominant market share in South East Asia to Coke. Why? Because in SEA this colour is associated with mourning and death!

It’s no secret to anyone that social media is integral to any digitally savvy campaign or business, but by the same token, just how damaging can it be? Over the last decade, social media platforms and campaigns have made moments of unexpected enjoyment a global affair, and put businesses and their products on an instantaneous global stage in a way that simply wasn’t possible before.

BUT, as mentioned, it’s important to recognise that in the word of social media, when you get it wrong it can go very wrong.

Coca Cola – Rushing to the Post

At first glance you might think – what’s the problem? It’s just a Christmas cartoon-themed map. However, on closer inspection, this particular map actually excludes Kaliningrad, which was annexed into Russia shortly after WW2.  Whilst it may not seem like the end of the world to some, certain reactions such as posing pouring coca cola down the toilet with the hashtag #BanCocaCola would suggest otherwise …


Delta Airlines – Having a Giraffe…

Even a light-hearted post relating to football can cause a wave of unnecessary embarrassment. Take, for example, Delta Airlines congratulating the USA in its win in the world-cup against Ghana. Opting for the Statue of Liberty to represent the USA and a picture of a giraffe to represent Ghana. . . Firstly, Giraffes are not native to Ghana and you won’t actually find any living in the country… Secondly, it was later found that the image was a stock image of a national reserve in Kenya. Do your research, because social media junkies don’t miss a trick!


Although some of the above mistakes may seem unfathomable to me and you, these ‘mishaps’ occur more often than you would think. Sometimes the damage is already done in terms of reputation and in the loss of millions of pounds. Cross-cultural marketing isn’t easy and without a clear understanding of your market and your audience, it can go from right to wrong in a matter of seconds. The moral of the story here? Do your research!!

Jack Roberts 

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