Cultural and lingual diversity brings zest and excitement to our lives. They can also cause difficulties when determining what content and copy will work in other parts of the world. Language and cultural differences must be considered when creating ads, social media content, press releases, and other promotional assets.
Google Translate, while a fantastic tool in helping with these challenges, can be limited when it comes to understanding cultural nuances. This app may be useful for tourists dealing with uncomfortable language barriers on posh Parisian vacations, but it is not reliable when translating snappy and clever marketing copy.
Slogans, body copy, and even brand and product names are created with precision and intentionality to catch the eye of an audience. Good copy sells – it’s as simple as that. With such emphasis placed on copywriting, you would imagine that translating is an important step when introducing a brand or product into an international market. The number of flopped campaigns that have suffered backlash around the world proves differently.
Below are three displays of cultural communication gone wrong that exemplify what happens when companies don’t do their research.
1) Kentucky Fried Chicken
The Beijing audience had a bit of a fright from Western society when the fast food restaurant translated its “Finger-Lickin’ Good” slogan directly using the Chinese alphabet.
Those seeking a hearty poultry dinner in China were shocked to see that the American fried chicken joint was encouraging self-cannibalism with the slogan “Eat Your Fingers Off.” A failed Google translation was not at fault for this 1980’s mishap, but KFC could have saved themselves from a world of trouble if a smidgen more time had been spent on research.
2) Procter & Gamble
Direct translations are not the only danger in the international market. Cultural differences influence audience reactions to campaigns. While an ad may be relatable to most Americans, the same ad could difficult to comprehend in a foreign market.
Take the 1970’s Procter & Gamble Pampers commercials, which had little impact on the Japanese market. The Pampers television ad that ran in Japan consisted of a stork delivering Pampers diapers to the doorstep of new parents. While successful in the United States, where the stork story is widely known, the ad was lost on Japanese audiences.
Japanese children are told the story of Momotaro, the baby boy born from a huge peach which was discovered floating down the river by Momotaro’s new parents. A large white bird delivering diapers seemed like an inside joke that the Japanese “had to be there” to understand and thus flew over the heads of the audience. Ultimately, this mishap caused the product to do poorly in the Japanese market.
Like written content, design and imagery can also light unwanted fires. In its 2016 Russian holiday ad, Coca-Cola managed to hit two birds with one stone, just not in the successful way they might have anticipated.
The soda company created an ad wishing its Russian market a happy new year. The ad featured a festive map of snow-covered Russia, but in the locals’ opinion, an incomplete map. The first version of the ad did not include Crimea, which had been annexed from the Ukraine in 2014. The annexation of Crimea was not globally acknowledged, which made the unintentional exclusion of the peninsula seem like a political statement.
In attempt to ease the uproar caused by this ad, Coca-Cola decided to create a second ad including Crimea as well as several other territories Russians expressed were left out. There are few who wish to be on Russia’s bad side, so in a hurry to make amends, Coca-Cola overlooked how the Ukraine would accept this move.
Backlash from the Ukraine quickly came when the second ad began to circulate. Coca-Cola removed the ad all together after realizing that they were not going to be able to please everyone. The company issued an apology for the whole situation and placed the blame on the external ad agency who created the graphic.
Research, Research, Research
Everyone makes mistakes. And let’s face it, most of them were right in front of our faces. When they spiral out of control, we are left banging our heads against the wall. It is important to learn from these mistakes and, more importantly, those previously made by others.
That is, after all, why we study history. Many of the mistakes we make every day have been made before by others. Taking errors made in the past into consideration before executing campaigns, or anything else that requires critical thinking, saves us plenty of trouble.
It’s no secret that research is the backbone to a successful campaign, be it advertising, PR, or marketing. Creating campaigns and content that is easily understood and appreciated globally is not a simple task, but neglecting to research this can, and will, backfire.
When in doubt, ask a native! Global contacts are easy to come by these days, especially with technology and social media. If an idea will not sell globally without causing upset, such as Coca-Cola’s Russia example, toss it and create something new.
Many of the most effective and relatable ads don’t need to have written content. Search for cultural equivalents or that which is universally understood, then go with it. If you decide to be culturally specific, check, double-check, and triple-check that translations are accurate, visuals relatable, and the story rings true with all targeted cultures.
At Karwoski & Courage, we are fortunate to have native-speaking multilingual specialists on-site. As an Omnicom agency, we also have the resources to tap on-the-ground cultural expertise in any region of the world. These resources allow us to create content intended for various cultures while ensuring it will be correctly translated and socially acceptable.