International marketing isn’t easy, and one of the world’s biggest brands learned that the hard way.

When Pepsi launched in China, according to legend, the brand made the mistake of translating its slogan, “Come alive with the Pepsi generation,” a touch too literally.

Pepsi accidentally promised Chinese consumers that the soft drink would make their ancestors rise from the dead. Instead, sales plummeted.

Examples of mistranslation mishaps in marketing are endless and hammer home the point that if a brand is going to succeed abroad, it needs to make sure its message is culturally relevant.

Speaking the language

In 1997, Nike pulled its Air sneakers off the market after receiving complaints that the shoe's "flaming air" symbol resembled the Arabic form of God's name.

As you might expect, language is the major barrier for brands looking to break into new markets. You just can’t rely on English-only marketing when more than half of all Google searches are conducted in a language other than English, and 72 percent of consumers require information in their own language before buying a product.

What’s more, recent stats show that foreign language use experienced massive growth between 2000 and 2008. Arabic usage alone increased by a whopping 2064 percent.

Since your website is often the gateway to your brand, it’s important to make sure it works across cultures, languages and borders.

Don’t rely on translation tools

Free translation tools like Google Translate are great, but they’re no substitute for professional translation. Just ask Coors, whose famous catchphrase ‘Turn it Loose’ infamously promised Spanish beer drinkers that a bottle of Coors would give them diarrhea – hardly an appealing prospect for customers looking to relax with a nice cold beer on a summer day.

Automated translation tools and dictionaries might be useful for looking up a single word or phrase, but when your reputation is at stake you can’t afford to take the risk. Don’t skimp on this area – have your website and marketing material professionally translated.


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Beware of cultural faux pas

When you don’t know the language and cultural norms of a society, it’s very easy for your message to be misinterpreted. Take Colgate, for example. When the personal care giant introduced its new toothpaste Cue in France, it didn’t have a clue that a popular porn magazine existed with the same name.

Swedish vacuum cleaner brand Electrolux found out that mistranslation mishaps work both ways when they tried to import their slogan to the UK; “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux” just didn’t sound very appealing to English ears [Editor’s note: this example of  a brand blunder seems to fall under the category of “urban myth;” apparently the Swedes were well-aware of the double entendre].

Avoiding such cultural gaffes is fairly easy if you take care to have your web page and marketing products localized by native speakers. They’ll be aware of the cultural and linguistic subtleties of the place, and will know instinctively how to avoid offensive and inappropriate content.

Lost in Translation: IKEA's FARTFULL workbench (2004) elicited giggles from the Swedish company's English-speaking customers (Note: This post previously misidentified the word's origin as German. Thanks to reader @Sven for the correction).

Search by location

If you want your brand to rank highly in local search engines, register a domain name for each country you’re targeting. If you want more customers from China, for example, you should register the domain name

Likewise, Google may be a household verb at your home, but some countries have popular search engines of their own. Baidu is big in China and Yandex is hot in Russian-speaking countries, for example. A little research into your target markets will certainly pay off.

And whether they find your website through search or not, IP geolocation tools will let  you pinpoint the location of each visitor based on their IP address, and automatically displays the homepage in their respective language. But don’t just assume that all your page visitors from Argentina want to view the page in Spanish; allow online users to select the language manually.

Multilingual branding may look like hard work but it’s certainly worth the effort. After all, your brand is the first thing consumers see and – as the saying goes – “there’s no second chance to make a first impression.”

Did I get that right?