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The Challenges Of Marketing Translation, And How To Overcome Them

The challenges of Marketing Translation, and how to overcome them

Working in the translation industry, we know the importance of communicating messages from culture to culture. Unfortunately for marketers, it’s perhaps never more obvious when they get it wrong, and some bloopers from several years ago are still doing the rounds online.

Here we share some of those, but accompany them with practical advice on how to avoid a similar situation. So as it’s Friday, have a giggle (and a lesson) on us.

Where did they go wrong?

Did you hear the one about Coca-Cola launching in China, only to have their brand mistranslated as “Bite the wax tadpole” or “Female horse stuffed with wax”, depending on the dialect? Of course, Pepsi, not wanting to be outdone by their rivals, also entered the Chinese market with a bang. However, their slogan “Pepsi brings you back to life” was rather unfortunately translated into “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave”. You can imagine the reaction.

While we’re not here to poke fun at companies getting it very (and sometimes hilariously) wrong, highlighting these issues triple underlines, boldens and maybe even italicises the need for robust processes when translating marketing materials.

How to get it right

Review your work. Properly.

Those with a basic knowledge of Spanish may be able to translate the following sentence: Tengo (I have) un (an) viejo (old) amigo (friend) – and presume the translation to be correct. However, the similar phrase “tengo un amigo viejo”, which, to a non-native speaker approving a translation may appear to mean the same thing, would in fact be a faux ami. The same words in a slightly different order can have a completely different meaning: a friend you have known for a while vs. a friend who is elderly.

In many Latin-based languages the placement of adjectives before or after nouns can completely change their meanings. Therefore, even if the words are correct, it’s always best to have a native review your marketing translations.

Beware the American(ism)s!

While we do love our cousins in America, some of their ways are a little foreign to us. Date formatting for one – today’s date is 03/07/15 not 07/03/15! It’s very easy to assume that just because something it written in English, that it will be applicable and suitable to both UK and US markets.

Another good example of this is when Scandinavian company Electrolux marketed its vacuum cleaner with the same English slogan for the UK and US markets: ‘Nothing sucks like an Electrolux’.

The word “suck” in the US is commonly used to describe something as being, well, useless, so customers there were less than enamoured at the idea of buying a vacuum that was of no value to them whatsoever.

The moral behind this story – ensure you localise (or localize) your English texts for UK and US markets separately.

Watch your media

One of my personal favourites is Braniff Airlines’ notable error in using radio as their method of advertising in Latin America, with their (correctly translated) slogan “Vuela in Cuero”. Little did they know that this phrase when spoken sounds identical to “Vuela en Cueros” – meaning “fly naked”.

While they may have got everything else right visually, they didn’t consider how the translation would sound – a very important lesson for any campaign using multiple media.

Brand name localisation

When coming up with a new product, you’ll often want to give it (and trademark) a new name. This is very common in the automotive industry in particular. However, when trying to market products in different countries, it isn’t always been plain sailing.

The Chevrolet Nova, for example, is a very exotic-sounding name, but its literal Spanish translation is “No go.” Not great for a car.

Similarly, Mazda named its Gulliver’s Travels inspired car LaPuta, only to find out later that the term meant “prostitute” in Spanish. Time for one more? Go on then. Ford noticed that sales of its Pinto model were particularly low in Brazil. Why? “Pinto” in Brazilian is slang for “tiny male genitals”.

While translation is very important for getting your marketing materials spot on, it’s perhaps even more important earlier on when product names are being decided. Just saying.

Use pictures… carefully!

For those that think they can get away with using pictures instead of words – there’s still a lot to consider! When US brand Gerber introduced its baby food products to Africa, they used the same packaging as they did at home – with a cute baby on the front. Little did they know that because literacy in Africa is very low, companies routinely label their products with pictures of what is inside.

And when a well-known drug company marketed a new remedy in the Middle East they used pictures too: the first picture was of someone ill, the next picture showed them taking the medication, and in the last picture they had recovered. The company had neglected to take into account that Arab countries read right to left!

The importance of colour

When Orange launched its “The future’s bright … the future’s Orange” campaign in Northern Ireland, it hadn’t quite banked on almost starting a civil war. The term “Orange” is synonymous with the Orange Order – the Protestant loyalists, which of course did not sit well with the Catholic population.

In China, many colours have a lot of symbolism, and brands need to be particularly careful about their choice when creating materials for this country. For example, yellow is commonly associated with pornography and adult material, while white has connotations of death.

Of course the absolute failsafe option with all localisation projects is to consult a professional, at very least a native speaker, to advise on correctness for each market. A professional translator will not just spot your errors (glaring or otherwise), but be able to suggest corrections too.

Happy Friday!

*Photo credits: everything possible /

Steve Griffin

Steve Griffin edits and writes for the Lingo24 blog. After studying Drama at Exeter University and completing a postgraduate diploma in Management at Durham University, he worked in Marketing & Communications in a global recruitment company for five years, before spending some time as a freelance copywriter and marketing consultant. Steve enjoys bringing his creative flair to writing and marketing projects, and has always been a passionate student of language.

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