As firms expand globally - West meets East, North meets South - language and cultural differences occasionally create some real gaffes. Finishing a year is always a good excuse to laugh about the most glaring of them (cases not disguised for confidentiality's sake).
The introduction to South America of the Chevy Nova automobile caught General Motors by surprise. The company was apparently unaware that in Spanish, "no va" means "it won't go." As soon as GM figured why sales were in trouble, it renamed the car throughout the region.
But GM was not left alone amidst South American marketing hassles. Ford had its problems in Brazil with the Pinto model's introduction. When it began floundering, the company learned that "Pinto" was Brazilian street slang for "tiny male genitals." What to do? Ford removed all of the nameplates and replaced them with "Corcel" which means "horse."
But problems in Latin America were not limited to the automobile industry. When Parker Pens introduced its ball-point models in Mexico, its adverts were supposed to translate, "It won't leak in your pocket and embarrass you." The company mistakenly translated "embarrass" into Spanish "embarazar." Having done so, the embarrassing advert claimed, "It won't leak in your pocket and make you pregnant." Watch those pens...
Shirts were also problematic. One American T-shirt maker in Miami printed merchandise in Spanish to honor the Pope's upcoming visit among the region's large Spanish population. Rather than reading, "I saw the Pope," the shirts exclaimed, "I saw the potato."
Asia presented challenges as well. In China, the name Coca-Cola was first transcribed as "Ke-kou-ke-la." It wasn't until thousands of posters had been printed that the company discovered the phrase meant "bite the wax tadpole" or "female horse stuffed with wax," depending on the dialect. Coke then reviewed over 40,000 Chinese characters before finding a close phonetic match, "ko-kou-ko-le," which can be taken to mean "happiness in the mouth."
Pepsi, too, had their share of grief. In Taiwan, the famous Pepsi slogan "Come alive with the Pepsi Generation" ended up as "Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead."
But let's return to Europe, where Colgate introduced a toothpaste in France named Cue, which coincidentally carried the name of a notorious pornographic magazine. In Italy, a Schweppes Tonic Water campaign translated the name as Schweppes Toilet Water.
As expected, my experiences in Central Europe have not been without their low moments.
Once I instructed my project managers not to return to the office "unless the research was done." I was exaggerating, but with limited English, they thought I meant it literally. One of the managers visited a company which our client was considering for acquisition. The mission: gather sales data to assess their performance. The director refused. Our project manager insisted. Guard dogs were sent after him. Remembering "my dictum," he climbed the fence and stayed there for nearly an hour until the director relented and provided the information, admiring the effort. (note: with good reason, my former project manager is now Export Sales Manager, Central & Eastern Europe, for the client).
Another project manager was researching the market for a wood industry client who produced coffins. Where's the best place for research? You guessed it... the cemetery. Whom to interview? That's right... the grave diggers. While her information on coffin sizes, shapes, and types of wood was good, it wasn't enough. Fearing to return to the office without the complete picture, she conducted the ultimate interview, with the cemetery's priest. He answered the questions, quite professionally, then added, "I bless you my child. But how can such a beautiful woman as you end up in a job like this?"
Language barriers plagued me also while leading a seminar in the south of Poland. I was totally impressed with the work of the group. "Super duper," I complimented one of the trainees using a popular American exclamation after his near-perfect answer to a tough question. Instead of smiles, frowns emerged, soon turning to rage. He was ready to fight me. "What did I do?" I pleaded with the interpreter. "You called him a 'super-ass'," she replied. Some quick smooth talking saved me for future consulting engagements.
At one of these engagements, I noticed in the parking lot beautiful white flowers being sold by the truckload. The bargain price was almost too good to be true. "We just had a great client meeting," I thought. "Let me buy something special for the office." So I did. Five large bunches which I trudged up the office stairs along with a briefcase and computer. "Surprise," I shouted as I entered. The entire staff gathered around. No smiles. No cheers. Only blank stares on pale faces. Finally, one of my project managers asked, "Who died?" What I missed was the upcoming holiday, "All Saints' Day," with tradition dictating a trek to the cemetery with white flowers to remember the dead.
Oops! Live and learn. Happy Holidays, Happy New Year, and Happy Marketing in 1998.
Stories from the Americas and Asia are adapted from various sources. "Marketing in the Trenches" appears monthly. Stewart Glickman is an international consultant, currently based in London. Tel: 0044-171-794-4739. Fax: 0044-171-431-5941.
18. Dec 1997 at 0:00 | Stewart Glickman