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Lost in Localization

Epic International Marketing Blunders

When expanding internationally, it is crucial to adapt your product and marketing to the new market. You need to translate your content carefully, but you also need to adapt to the local culture. Seems obvious, right? Here are some examples of translation and localization blunders that have gone down in history.

Translation Mistakes

The American Brewing company Coors found out the hard way that slang does not always translate well. Their slogan “Turn it Loose” was well received in the US where it means relaxing, dropping your restrictions. When taking this campaign to Spanish countries, they simply translated it and used an expression that is interpreted as “suffer from diarrhea’. Not exactly what Coors wanted to be associated with.

The Swedish home appliance manufacturer Electrolux successfully launched a marketing campaign in the UK using the slogan “nothing sucks like an Electrolux”. At that time that slogan did not have a negative connotation in British English. Americans found the slogan hilarious because in the US it means ‘to fail or to be awfully bad’. Although it is not sure whether this campaign was launched in the US, this example shows that even in countries speaking the same language there can be huge differences.

Even huge car manufacturers make mistakes when taking their brand to other markets. What do you think about the Ford Pinto model in Brazil, where Pinto is slang for male genitals, or the Chevy Nova in South America, where Nova literally means ‘it does not go’.

The American Dairy Association (ADA) was about to translate the catchy phrase “Got Milk” for the Spanish markets where it would be interpreted as “are you lactating”. Luckily, this mistake was discovered in the market research phase.

The American pen manufacturer Parker made a huge blunder when taking its slogan “it won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you’ into Spanish markets, where the word embarazada means pregnant. They really made a fool of themselves by saying “it won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant” .

When Generel Electric Company and Plessey merged, they created the new brand name GPT which stands for GEC, Plessy Communication. At first, you might think throwing some letters together is a low risk strategy. Think again, especially if you translate it for another market, like France where GPT sounds like “j’ai pété” or “I’ve farted”

Kentucky Fries Chicken saw its marketing campaign flop when it opened the doors in Beijing, China. The American food chain translated its slogan “Finger Licking Good” to “Eat your Fingers Off” in Chinese.

Culture, Folklore and Religion

The previous examples teach us how important it is to be careful when translating a brand or a slogan. It is equally important to show respect for cultural differences.

Let’s look back at the Kentucky Fried Chicken example. Even if KFC would have translated “Finger Licking Good’ properly, it still wouldn’t be received well by the Chinese customer. If they would have done some market research, they would have known that the Chinese do not lick their fingers as a sign of tasty food.

Tesco also made a multicultural blunder. During Ramadan the UK retailer was promoting the new Smokey Bacon Flavour chips with the message Ramadan Mubarak.

The German car company BMW made improper use of the United Arab Emirates national anthem in a car commercial. The ad displayed a soccer club singing the anthem and then running toward several BMW cars when they heard the sound of the engine. UAE Emiratis found it incredibly offensive that BMW suggested their cars were more important than the anthem.

Another recent international marketing disaster was committed by Dolce & Gabbana. The luxury brand made an ad in which a Chinese woman attempted to eat Italian food with chopsticks. Chinese consumers were furious and threatened to boycott the brand entirely.

Proctor & Gamble had a hard time when expanding to Japan. They used a television commercial in Japan that was popular in Europe. The ad showed a Japanese man walking into the bathroom while his wife was taking a bath. Japanese women were offended because they considered the ad an invasion of privacy and inappropriate behavior. And when they launched the Pampers diapers, it also didn’t resonate with the Japanese customer. They used an image of a stork delivering a baby on the packaging. After some research, the company figured out that customers were confused. Japanese parents had no idea why a stork was delivering a baby on the package because in Japan, babies are delivered on giant floating peaches.

The American food company Gerber made a painful mistake when marketing baby food with a cute baby on the label. They did not know that in some countries in Africa products usually have pictures on the label of what is inside the package.


Colors can evoke emotions like happiness, sadness, love, anger. It is important to know what colors mean in the different markets that you are targeting. Using a wrong color can sink your marketing campaign.

Pepsi lost it dominant market share to Coke in South East Asia when Pepsi changed the color of its vending machines and coolers from deep "Regal" blue to light "Ice" blue as Light blue is associated with death and mourning in South East Asia.

When United Airlines inaugurated its concierge services for first-class passengers on its Pacific routes, each concierge wore a white carnation. The flower is an oriental symbol of death and shocked most of the Chinese business travelers.

If you want to learn more about localization and the impact it may have on your international expansion strategy, schedule a free strategy call.


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