Learning from Cultural Branding Blunders In International Business

by: on 16 September 2015

Making sure that you pitch your brand and marketing message to the correct audience is so crucial for any business, but mistakes do happen. Katya Puyraud from Euro Start Enterprises provides some insightful examples.

"While mistakes can be amusing, understanding the subtle nuances of different countries is imperative when doing business overseas."

Making mistakes is a natural ingredient of any business. Whether you own the business or are an employee, no one is immune to the occasional blunder. At the time it can seem like the end of the world. Palms sweat, pulses race and the shamed bungler can often be found hiding in a toilet cubicle. But all is not lost. We can take comfort from knowing that we’re in good company. Large well-known brands, with big budgets and enviable resources make mistakes too, and often it can be quite funny when they do.

Convinced that their brands or products are so well loved that they can transcend international cultures, a somewhat relaxed attitude has deterred marketers from taking the necessary time to carefully check translations, or to research the various cultural nuances that make the world both beautifully complex and routinely confusing.

To prove the point, here are a few examples that humorously illustrate why the importance of research can never be underestimated when doing business around the world.


After a successful advert in Italy where the Hollywood actor Richard Gere could be seen driving through the Italian countryside in a Lancia Delta, Fiat decided to roll the advert out internationally as everyone adores a well-known Hollywood movie star – though that, of course, depends on who the movie star is and how well they are appreciated in different cultures. Because in China, Richard Gere was not exactly the choice of the people due to his support for the Dalai Lama and his criticism of China. When the advert aired, uproar, pandemonium and all sorts of scary adjectives ensued where the vast majority of the Chinese population vowed they would never ever drive a Fiat car again.

Coors Beer

If there is a lesson to be learnt about using slang language then this is a rime example! While direct translations may seem at first glance to be free from fear, embarrassment and potential ridicule, cultural slang and popular expressions can turn a relatively harmless message into something very horrible and unappreciative.

Their popular “Turn It Loose” campaign was taken to Spain where the common interpretation of the phrase means that you’re unfortunately suffering from diarrhea (!)  Beer anyone?


In the late 80’s when KFC was expanding its franchising operations into China, the company accidentally translated its infamous slogan “Finger Licking Good” to “Eat Your Fingers Off” because Chinese is not like some other languages where the end translation means exactly the same as in the original version. Arguably, it goes without saying that their chicken is very tasty, even though this may be in an indulgent and slightly guilty way. Nevertheless, munching on your own deformed stumps is taking things a little too far.


This particular example doesn’t really put Coca-Cola at fault, but in their enthusiastic attempt to find the phonetic equivalent of the word “Coca Cola”, local shopkeepers advertised the product with the Chinese characters, which, when spoken, should have sounded like “Coca-Cola”. Unfortunately, the direct translation turned to be in Mandarin Chinese as, “Bite the wax tadpole”. Not a drink that quite tickles the taste buds!


The marketers at Ford had a very good reason for hiding in cubicles for a long time when they tried to entice customers in Belgium to sample their gorgeously manufactured cars.  “Every car has a high-quality body” is a simple and effective message. “Every car has a high-quality corpse”, not so much!

Miami T-Shirt

In 1987, when the Pope, John Paul II, visited Miami, a local t-shirt producer made a commemorative t-shirt for the Latino community that simply read “I Saw The pope”.

Unfortunately, they forgot to capitalise the letter P in the word "pope". This small error in translation entirely changed the meaning of the sentence, and resulted in a number of customers proudly walking around downtown Miami with their t-shirt proclaiming that they had “Seen Potato”.

While mistakes can be amusing, understanding the subtle nuances of different countries is imperative when doing business overseas. It’s an area that’s often overlooked, but the values that underpin a particular society can have a huge impact on the ultimate success of your business.

Key questions to ask include, What is the country’s economic ideology? Does a particular colour have a profound meaning? Have you considered all the possible translations and most importantly, would they appreciate Richard Gere? 


By Katya Puyraud from Euro Start Enterprises