From innuendoes to horror stories – when international marketing goes wrong

Ever since we have developed modern means of communication and are expanding markets beyond borders, big brands had to market their products all over and in many different languages. Most of the time, this is done by marketing professionals in cooperation with language specialists that have cultural and linguistic differences in mind.

Sometimes it isn’t and that’s when it gets funny or awkward…or even horrifying! Let us show you some of the instances when international marketing went horribly or hilariously wrong:

Electrolux’s self-awareness

Swedish home appliance manufacturer Electrolux blundered its international marketing campaign for one of their vacuum cleaners (or hoovers for all you British English enthusiasts). Wanting to tout its amazingly high power the tagline read: “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.”

While this is a grammatically correct sentence that also explains that vacuum cleaners from this brand clean your floors like nobody’s business, the double entendre wouldn’t do Electrolux any favours.

Funnily enough, this blunder only really hit them when Electrolux moved into the US market since it has been marketing their product in the UK very successfully throughout the 1960s. Oh well, in any case, the current international slogan “Thinking of you.” does not come with any negative connotation (if you ignore the slight stalker vibe).

KFC’s secret ingredient

It is a well-known fact that KFC is the top fast-food restaurant brand in China today, boasting more than 5,000 restaurants in over 850 cities. It might be a less well-known fact that the Colonel got off to a slightly rocky start with its Chinese customers when the first restaurants were opened in the late 1980s.

Everybody knows of KFC’s slogan praising their food items to be “Finger-lickin’ good”, but did you also know that the first try at a translation of the slogan into Chinese told eager customers to “Eat your fingers off.”?

We’d rather not, thank you very much, Colonel Sanders.

Clairol’s crappy curling

False friends are the bane of every language learner. You think that you know what a word means because it also exists in the language you’re learning. But more often than not, it turns out that this is a horrible trap and the actual meaning of the word is totally different than in your mother tongue.

This happened to personal care product manufacturer Clairol when they launched a curling iron in Germany and named it “Mist Stick”. While we’re not entirely sure why that would be a great name for a curling iron, in any case, the word ‘Mist’ in German, does not stand for fine vapour, but for ‘manure’.

Yes, you read that right. Clairol actually advertised a stick of crap to their customers. We won’t put that anywhere close to our hair!

Killer cars

Car manufacturers are notorious in the translation community for blundering their brand names when moving into new markets or at least, for not paying enough attention to different meanings in other languages.

Both, Mercedes-Benz and American Motors marketed their cars with a message that was surely not intended. Mercedes entered the Chinese market under the brand name “Bensi” which unfortunately means “rush to die” in Chinese. Surely not what you want your customers to think they’re doing when they get behind the wheel of one of your cars.

On a similarly martial note, American Motors launched a midsize car in Puerto Rico in the early 1970s and named it “The Matador” – which literally means “The Killer”. This name surely does not exactly instil the utmost confidence in a driver.

Rude cars

We were not lying when we said that car companies just do not pay attention, as we have two more offenders that just flat out insulted people with their brand names.

This time it’s up to Ford and Mitsubishi who messed up when moving into the Hispanic market. The Ford Pinto really didn’t find enthusiastic buyers in Brazil, since Pinto means “tiny male genitalia” and who wants to drive around announcing that to everyone. There are other cars that get the message across just as clearly (yes, we’re looking at you, all you well-known symbols of overcompensation).

Equally rude was Mitsubishi, when they started selling their SUV vehicle “Pajero” in Spanish-speaking markets. Or should we say, trying to sell because Pajero is a very rude insult to men in Spanish? Mitsubishi quickly learned the errors of their ways and have since been selling this particular car under the moniker “Montero” in the Spanish-speaking world. Lesson learned!

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