10 Marketing Slogans Lost in Translation

May 11, 2009 at 1:36 pm (Business)


The advent of mass communication technology has revolutionised the way that companies approach their marketing strategies, and has given even the smallest of businesses a platform to tout their wares to all corners of the globe. It is no longer just the major corporate players that have to think about how their products can be marketed overseas, and as a result, the use of business translation services has skyrocketed.

However, while the decision to expand operations abroad is an exciting one, those wishing to branch out into foreign markets should remember a couple of important points.

Firstly, marketing products or services abroad requires some knowledge of the cultural values of the country you are dealing with, and companies should tailor their strategy accordingly. For example, when BMW and Mercedes started a major drive to break into the Japanese car market, they found that Japanese customers preferred the steering wheel to be located on the left, or wrong side, as it was seen as a status symbol.

Proof, if it were needed, that money cannot buy taste

Proof, if it were needed, that money cannot buy taste

Secondly, it is not simply enough just to use a literal translation of your slogan, or resorting to a phonetic equivalent of your company’s name. Coca Cola tried this approach when marketing their drink in China, choosing Chinese symbols that sounded similar to their brand name. The result, ‘Ke-kou-ke-la’, translates roughly as ‘Bite the wax tadpole’ and resulted in a costly search for a more appetising alternative.


It is worthwhile ensuring that it is the actual message that you are trying to communicate which gets translated, rather than just the individual words. If not, you are almost guaranteed to ensure that your message is lost in translation, and at worst you may well end up confusing or insulting the very people whose business you are trying to attract, as the following examples prove.

1.   Ikea
The Swedish furniture magnate also ran into problems in Germany with its Gutvik bunk beds. While English shoppers have long since been amused by quaint sounding furniture names such as the ‘Toftbo’ bathroom mat or ‘Babord’ shoe rack, the pronunciation in German, ‘Gut Fick’ meaning ‘Good F**k’, had far more sinister undertones for a children’s bed.

The 'Gutvik' bunk-bed. Not for children.

The 'Gutvik' bunk-bed. Not for children.

2. Bacardi
The Cuban company attempted to export some Latin flair to European markets with their fruit based ‘Pavane’ drink. Unfortunately its exotic charms were somewhat lost in Germany where it was easily misheard in busy bars as ‘Pavian’, or ‘baboon’.

3. Colgateimages
The world renowned oral health company caused a minor faux pax in France with the introduction of its new ‘Cue’ toothpaste. In France, the word ‘cul’, or ‘ass’ is pronounced with a silent ‘l’, bringing a whole new meaning to Colgate’s 60’s slogan ‘The Colgate ring of confidence’.

Oil giant Exxon began life as Standard Oil, and decided upon the abbreviation of ‘ESSO’ (or S.O) for marketing purposes. However a court order ruled that the company had an unfair monopoly on oil production and ordered it to be split into 34 separate entities. Jersey Standard grew the quickest, and eventually needed a new name to reflect its international status. They settled for ENCO, only to find that their new name translated phonetically to ‘stalled car’ in Japanese. The logo was finally changed to EXXON, and has been referred to as ‘The sign of the double-cross’ by environmental activists ever since.

Exxon - The sign of the double-cross. Courtesy of Greenpeace.

Exxon - The sign of the double-cross. Courtesy of Greenpeace.

5.    Honda

The car giant has had to perform a sharp U-turn in 2002 when it sought to export its new ‘Fitta’ vehicle to Europe. Unbeknown to the Japanese, the word ‘Fitta’ is a very old and extremely vulgar term for female genitals in Swedish, Norwegian and Danish. Thankfully the mistake was rectified and the car renamed the Honda Jazz in Europe. What customers would have made of a car named after a woman’s vagina complete with the tag ‘Small on the outside, but large on the inside’ is anyone’s guess.

6.    Sumitomo/Toyota
Even abbreviations can cause problems for companies looking to go international. Sumitomo’s attempts to market its ‘Sumitomo High Toughness’ range of steel pipes was somewhat hindered by the appearance of the acronym ‘SHT’, which was plastered all over the pipes themselves and related advertising. Similarly, the Toyota MR2 ran into difficulties in France where it was known as the MR Deux or ‘merde’.

The Toyota MR2. One crap car, apparently.

The Toyota MR2. One crap car, apparently.

7.    Locum
Sometimes even the most innocent advertising campaigns can result in trouble. Locum, a Swedish real estate company specialising in healthcare buildings, wanted to wish all their English clients a happy Christmas and so sent out these lovely cards with the ‘o’ of Locum replaced with a heart. As you can see, the ‘L’ quickly becomes an ‘I’ in this instance for anyone with a dirty mind. Imagine hanging that one up at Yule-tide.
ilovecum8.    Pocari Sweat/Coolpis
On a similar theme, two Japanese soft drink companies tried exporting their wares abroad. At least Pocari Sweat fooled some consumers into thinking it was some new-age remedy made from the perspiration of the lesser spotted Japanese Pocari.



9.       Electrolux

While some of the mistakes above may fall into the category of ‘unlucky’, others appear at first sight to be unforgivably stupid. Take Swedish manufacturer Electrolux. Their slogan ‘Nothing sucks like an Electrolux’ caused great hilarity when it was used to market Vacuum cleaners in America. However it now appears that the company were fully aware of the double entendre and used it to gain media attention.

10.    And finally….
Just to reiterate the point that context is important, a drug company from the states tried negotiating their way around the translation minefield by simply using pictures to sell its medicine in the Middle East. They tried to simplify their message as much as possible and created three pictures to put their point across. The first showed a man with a headache; the second depicted him taking one of their pills, while the third showed him smiling and apparently better. The only thing they didn’t take into account was that their target audience would read the ad from right to left.

Permalink Leave a Comment