Language Lens

A blog about life, discovery and culture through the lens of language and linguistics.

Cross cultural marketing blunders oh my! Part 2

Since 1969, the number of multinational companies in the world`s 14 richest countries has tripled from 7,000 to 24,000 (1).  Globalization is real and more apparent everyday.  When designing a global marketing strategy, language plays a key factor of course, however, sometimes it is not language at all that is the problem and instead is a cultural misunderstanding or something that was overlooked.  A multinational company today must understand how culture affects consumer reactions and also what effects their own strategies could have on a culture.
cross cultural globe
Defined by Kotler in Principles of Marketing, 4th European edition, 2005 , culture is “the learned distinctive way of life of a society” and the dimensions of culture are seen in religion, customs and traditions, the social organization of a society, values, the education system and education levels, the political and legal system, technology and material culture, and aesthetic systems such as language, music and the arts.  A previous blog post, “Translation marketing blunders oh my!” focused on language and translation errors where in this post, the cause of the marketing blunders listed is cross cultural.
cultural cartoon
1. Coca Cola had to change their marketing message all together after learning that in India it is not common to drink soda during a meal.  Soft drinks are instead saved for guests or for special occasions (2).
2. Known in the United States for the brown trucks, UPS had to issue a fleet of different color delivery trucks since their trucks closely resembled hearses in Spain (3, 12).
3. During the 1994 World Cup, Heineken printed the flag of each qualifying country under the bottle cap.  Saudi Arabia was included, which has a holy verse on its flag.  This angered Muslims all over the world as the verse was then associated with alcohol.  Heineken reacted by recalling all the bottles and stopping their marketing campaign all together (4).
4. Pepsodent attempted to sell whitening toothpaste to a market in Southeast Asia only to find out that the local people chewed betel nuts to blacken their teeth, as they find it attractive (5).
5.  In 2002, the UK sports manufacturer Umbro had to withdraw its new trainers (sneakers) called the “Zyklon” as that was the name of the gas used by the Nazis in concentration camps to murder millions of Jews (5).
6.  One of Europe’s largest telecom firms, Orange, is generally considered a marketing success story with the launch of its now famous slogan: “The future’s bright… the future’s Orange.” This message spread across the UK in the 1990`s with huge success, however, among the Catholic population of Northern Ireland, “Orange” is linked to the “Orange Order”–the Protestant organization that is viewed as both fanatic and hostile by many Catholics .  With a slogan like this, it better translated to “The future’s bright… the future’s Protestant Loyalist,” which was not appreciated among the Catholic Irish population of course (5).
7. Neerlandia, a Dutch producer or powdered milk, exported its product to African countries using tin cans.  They later switched to alupacks made of aluminum foil in an effort to cut costs.  This, however, created some unexpected challenges.  First, custom`s officials were suspicious that the new packing materials contained drugs. Secondly, sales were disappointing after the change because Neerlandia learned that customers were buying the product because of the packaging in fact!  In addition to using the powdered milk, buyers used the tin cans for boiling water, preparing food and in some cases, for building homes.   Neerlandia later discontinued the alu-packs and returned to using the reusable tin material (6).
8. When Gerber started selling baby food in Africa, they put a picture of a baby on the label of their jars, just as they do in the United States.  However, the company did not realize a common practice in some African markets of putting pictures of the contents on the labels since many consumers are illiterate…you can imagine how this horrified customers (5).
9. Staff at the African port of  Stevedoring saw the “internationally recognized” symbol for “fragile” (a broken wine glass) and mistook it for a box of broken glass. Rather than waste space they threw all the boxes into the sea!  Not only can written language be misinterpreted but also pictures and symbols (7).
10. Pepsi changed its vending machines from deep blue to light blue in Southeast Asia and started losing market share.  They later learned that light blue is a symbol of death and mourning in Southeast Asia (9).
Based on International Marketing Blunders Revisited, in the Journal of International Marketing (4), blunders like this can be avoided if companies follow these suggestions.  If not, they are sure to get off target… sometimes with irreversible consequences.
  1. Don`t be overconfident or overly optimistic about your product in new markets.
  2. Don`t overlook the importance of learning in international markets.
  3. Avoid ethnocentrism.
  4. Avoid the “self-reference criterion.”
  5. Do your homework about your new markets!
  6. Seek relationships with local people from the culture.

off target

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3 thoughts on “Cross cultural marketing blunders oh my! Part 2

  1. Pingback: Translation marketing blunders oh my! Part 1 | Language Lens

  2. Pingback: 自国で通じても他国では通じない?ローカライゼーションの失敗から学ぶ | CJコラム

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