Lost in translation: 10 times brands got it wrong when going global
Taking your brand around the world is by no means smooth sailing, even if you’re Coke or KFC. As part of The Drum’s Globalization Deep Dive, we look at 10 times taglines and titles really did not travel well.
‘Eat Your Fingers Off’ never quite stuck as a KFC tagline / Adobe Stock
Snappy slogans and memorable monikers can be central to a business’s success, cementing a company at the forefront of consumers’ minds and evoking its brand values. KFC’s ‘Finger Lickin’ Good’, for example, quickly has many of us salivating, while Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ is the rallying cry we need to embrace an active lifestyle – provided you speak English, that is.
When entering different markets, brands rightly conduct reams of research to make sure they are as appealing as possible in their new territories. Occasionally, however, something gets overlooked – leading to some hilarious linguistic gaffes. Such as...
10. Mercedes-Benz rushed this one
German car brand Mercedes-Benz missed the mark when it launched in China. Initially, the Chinese translation for the company was Bensi, which actually means ’rush to your death’. Thankfully it got it right with its second attempt, Ben Chi, which translates as ’dashing speed’.
9. Coors’s loose translation totally stinks
Beer brand Coors had issues in the Spanish-speaking market when its slogan, ’Turn it Loose’, turned a few stomachs. Rather than promote its twist caps as it was supposed to, it informed lager lovers that they might suffer from diarrhea – not ideal.
8. HSBC’s costly cringe campaign
British bank HSBC encountered a costly blunder when it attempted to take its ’Assume Nothing’ slogan to global audiences. Unfortunately, various translations were botched and many ended up reading ’Do Nothing’ instead. Hardly inspiring from a financial services company.
7. Leaky Parker Pens caused a stir in Spain
Things got a little awkward when the Parker Pens strapline ‘It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you’ made its way to Spain. Turns out ’embarazada’ doesn’t mean embarrassed after all. The resulting ’It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant’ didn’t quite have the same ring to it.
6. The Jolly Green Giant wasn’t so jolly for Arabic-speaking people
With a hugely recognizable brand mascot and fun slogan, what could go wrong for Green Giant in the Middle East? Well, everything. While most Americans and Brits might remember the Jolly Green Giant as literally being jolly, a really bad translation job saw Arabic-speaking kids with the far more threatening ’intimidating green ogre’ telling them to eat their veg.
5. Gruesome gaffes from Ford in Belgium
Things took a dark turn for American car company Ford during a marketing push in Belgium. To tout its excellent manufacturing, the car brand created a campaign that it thought read ’Every car has a high-quality body.’ Turns out, it actually informed the unsuspected Europeans that ’Every car has a high-quality corpse.’
4. The Pepsi generation resurrected dead ancestors
No, this wasn’t some kind of Halloween promotion. A mistranslation of Pepsi’s iconic ‘Come alive! You’re in the Pepsi generation’ tagline was genuinely translated as ‘Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave’ in China. Pretty grim.
3. Coca-Cola translated phonetically into Chinese was a little fishy
Choosing a Chinese brand name can take a while, with so many unique sounds, shapes, meanings and etymologies. So in the late 1920s when Coke entered the market there and rolled out the phonetic translation ko-kä-kö-la, it became apparent it had majorly underestimated the task. Turns out that means ’bite the wax tadpole’. A second attempt that roughly translates as ‘happiness in the mouth’ was much more successful.
2. Nonce Finance means something else to the Brits
Sometimes, it’s not so much a translation error but more of a colloquial difference. Back in 2021, an American crypto company called Nonce Finance announced its arrival on Twitter with a name that left many people in the UK baffled. In Britain, a ’nonce’ is a sex offender, usually a pedophile. In true Twitter style, the mocking was merciless.
1. KFC takes ‘Finger Lickin’ Good’ to extremes
KFC’s famous slogan was, apparently, coined off the cuff by a restaurant manager in the 50s. When the chain went on to be the first western fast food company to open in Beijing, 30 years later, whoever translated its tagline landed on the not-so-appetizing ’Eat your fingers off.’ Yum.
For more on what marketers and their partners need to do to succeed on a global level, check out The Drum’s Globalization Deep Dive.