International Brand Blunders: How NOT to Enter a New Market

Written by Petr Klement

March 8, 2018

Expanding into a new market is no small feat. Regardless of your industry, you’ll be faced with the challenge of perfectly synchronizing tons of moving parts in order to truly make an impact. The last thing you’ll want to do is to ruin your grand entrance with an embarrassing faux-pas.

Unfortunately for many brands, they wind up doing just this. However, there’s always a silver lining — they’ve learned their lessons the hard way, so that you don’t have to. Here are a few ways big brands that have failed internationally due to cultural differences, along with the steps you can take to avoid their mistakes.

Lost in Translation

Translating complex terms and phrases from one language to another is never easy. Get it right, and you’ll fit right into your new market. Otherwise, you’re leaving yourself wide open to a whole mess of troublesome possibilities.

Case Study: Mercedes-Benz, KFC and Pepsi Rush to Die in China

For one reason or another, even world-famous brands seem to have an extra rough time when it comes to China. Mandarin is a richly detailed language with layer upon layer of subtlety — in short, there are many ways to screw everything up.

When Mercedes-Benz first tried entering the Chinese market, they did so under the name “Bensi”. It sounds close enough to “Benz”, but sadly, it also means “rush to die.” Not the best image for a car company looking to make a strong first impression.


Mercedes-Benz isn’t alone. KFC’s tagline “finger-lickin’ good” was rendered as an invitation for Chinese customers to “eat their fingers off,” while “Pepsi brings you back to life” was given the far more unsettling translation of “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.”


Key Takeaway: Hire a Native Speaker

The best way to make the right kind of splash with your brand is to work with a native speaker of your target language. Even better, partner up with a professional translation agency who deals with your target market. They’ll have the experiences and resources to ensure you nail it the first time.

What’s in a Name?

A brand or product name that delivers in one language might perform equally well in another. Or, it could fail miserably. The auto industry has a rich history of cross-language mix-ups that result from the colorful names given to various car models. Let’s dive in.

Case Study: Mitsubishi Pajeros, Ford Pintos and AM Matadors

Back in the 1970s, American Motors decided to bring their Matador to Puerto Rico. While the name conjures up inspirational feelings of courage back on the mainland, in Spanish, “matador” simply means “killer”. As expected, Puerto Ricans weren’t exactly lining up at the dealerships.

Source: Wikipedia

Ford’s Pinto fared similarly in Brazil. In Portuguese, “pinto” is slang for male genitalia which are considerably less than impressive in size. Ford quickly adjusted the car’s name to Corcel, meaning “horse”.


The most famous example of this trope is arguably the Mitsubishi Pajero, originally an SUV with a name inspired by a Patagonian wild cat. Unfortunately, “pajero” is far less cool in Spanish, where it is instead an insult similar to “wanker” or “jerk”. Subsequently, the Pajero was renamed as the Montero in many markets with significant Spanish-speaking populations.


Key Takeaway: Do Your Research

Sure, the cool-sounding name you’ve picked might test amazingly in your home market. But especially if it’s a borrowed word, make sure its meanings are equally kosher across all your target audiences. Slang terms are especially prone to this type of error, so tread with caution.

A Rose Is Not Always a Rose

Even if you’ve taken our previous point to heart, you’re not out of the water quite yet. There’s still the chance that your name might sound similar to another word in your target language, and you’ll need to proof yourself against this type of mix-up as well.

Case Study: Vicks VapoRub, or Ficks FapoRub?

Vicks, originally named after Dr. Joshua Vick, assumed their storied brand name would hold up as well in their new German market as it does back home. They failed to realize, however, that Germans pronounce “v” as “f,” and that in German, “ficks” refers to a certain intimate act performed behind closed doors.


Vicks has since rebranded itself in Germany to the much more family-friendly Wick.


Key Takeaway: Sound Is as Important as Spelling

This is another reason why it’s so crucial to consult with a native speaker in each of your target markets before debuting your brand. The most extensive dictionary of colloquialisms in the world wouldn’t have warned Vicks about this German-specific hiccup.

Race: It’s Not a Toy

You’d think that common sense would dictate that race, along with other sensitive topics such as gender or sexual orientation, should never be used as an advertising gimmick. Yet time and time again, brands continue to put their worst foot forward with one oblivious campaign after another.

Case Study: Dove and Nivea, Repeat Offenders

Dove and Nivea, two of the world’s most well-known makers of grooming and beauty products, have both revealed a particular lack of foresight it comes to race in advertising.

Dove recently made headlines with an ad for its body wash which, to many viewers, suggested that a black woman was being “cleaned up” into a white one. Dove was quick to apologize, but the damage to their reputation had already been done.

Source: @NayTheMua via Facebook

Nivea’s ad, intended for Middle Eastern markets, featured the slogan “White is purity” printed over a white-clad woman. Viewers were quick to point out the ad’s racial undertones, and the campaign was immediately appropriated by white supremacist groups across the internet. The ad was soon pulled, but again, the cat was already out of the bag.

Source: Twitter

The kicker? Both brands had run ads with similar race-related gaffes in 2011

Source: Adweek
Source: Twitter

Key Takeaway: Be Respectful

If your agency or marketing team pitches you on a concept that seems like it might be offensive, don’t be afraid to turn it down. While some cultures may place more weight on certain topics than others, it’s best to refrain from such approaches entirely, even if you don’t personally find the idea off-putting. Instead, elevate your brand by finding another way to express your message.

Be Mindful of Cultural Differences

You’ve rejected your agency’s race-based pitch. Well done. It’s a good start, but is their new idea a step in the right direction? Each culture has its own set of taboos and sensitive areas, and the onus is on you to ensure your brand isn’t violating any of these rules. The same goes for cases in which a campaign references or appropriates an element of another culture in order to serve its message.

Case Study: Food Woes for Tesco and Yellow Pages

A Tesco store decided to wish its Muslim shoppers “Ramadan Mubarak” (have a blessed Ramadan) by offering them a tasty treat: bacon-flavored potato chips. As you can imagine, this promotion is tone-deaf on a number of levels.

Ramadan is a holy month of fasting. As in, no food whatsoever during daylight hours.
The eating of pork products is strictly forbidden in Islam. These chips don’t contain any actual pork, but still.

Yellow Pages attempted to showcase its worldliness with the beloved Korean dish bibimbap in one of its recent subway ads in Toronto. The problem? While the ad’s artwork portrays a bowl of noodles, bibimbap is a rice dish. Furthermore, as any bibimbap lover will tell you, it’s best eaten with a spoon, and not with chopsticks as the ad suggests.

Key Takeaway: Take a Moment to Reflect

These are two clear examples of brands leaping before they look. Had anyone taken a moment to step back and take a wider look at these campaigns, the problems would have leaped off the page. In short, don’t be a pajero.

Here’s one last botch for the road, possibly the most horrendous of all. This ad was created by industry giants Ogilvy & Mather for Kurl-On, an Indian mattress manufacturer, and shows Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai getting shot point-blank in the face. Though it never made it to print, the internet is forever.

Ogilvy & Mather apologizes for bloody Malala Yousafzai ads

— Alexander Kaufman (@AlexCKaufman) 15. května 2014

Have any tips of your own to share? Let us know in the comments below!

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