Pitfalls to avoid when localizing your brand

Article Written by Catherine Cheong, Copywriter at Verztec Consulting

In this age of Internet advancement, it is easy to acquire expertise in a broad range of subjects. Whatever information we are looking for is literally available at our fingertips with an online search.

With the availability of translation engines on the internet, does this mean we can now communicate effectively in a new language with the click of a button?

As the companies below have found out the hard way, localization projects not only require proficiency in the target language but also a thorough understanding of the culture. Here are some pitfalls to look out for:

1. Slang
Matsushita Electric was promoting a new PC for internet users and commissioned Panasonic to produce an online guide for this purpose.  A huge marketing campaign was built around the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker after license to use it was granted. However, the launch had to be cancelled at the last minute.

The reason? The ads featured the slogan, “Touch Woody – The Internet Pecker”.  An American at the internal product launch had explained to the stunned and embarrassed Japanese what “touch woody” and “pecker” meant in American slang.

2. Pronunciation of names and abbreviations
When General Electric Company (GEC) and Plessey combined to create a new telecommunications giant in the 1980s, it decided on using GPT (the short form of GEC-Plessey Telecommunications) as the new name. Unfortunately, this branding proved to be a big disaster in Europe. GPT is “Jay-Pay-Tay” when pronounced in French. This sounds like “J’ai pete”, which means “I have farted”.

In a similar case, Wang, the American computer company, could not understand at first why its British branches were refusing to use its latest motto “Wang Cares”. To British ears, this sounds too close to “wankers”. Of course, it is of no surprise that the staff did not want to be identified in this manner!

3. Cultural associations
Mazda introduced a minivan called Laputa in the Japanese market in 1991. Because of the popular Japanese animated film “Laputa: Castle in the Sky”, the name had a positive association here. However, Spanish speakers would immediately think of “puta”, the word for prostitute.  In this light, advertisements claims that “Laputa is designed to deliver maximum utility in a minimum space while providing a smooth, comfortable ride” and possesses “a lightweight, impact-absorbing body” are humorous, if not inappropriate.

The vehicle was subsequently renamed when it was sold in Latin America.

4. Using the wrong term
When Parker Pen launched a ballpoint pen in Mexico, its ads were supposed to say “it won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you”. However, the Spanish word “embarazar” was mistakenly used to mean embarrass. The ads actually said “it won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant”.

5. Double meanings
Scandinavian vacuum manufacturer Electrolux entered the American market with the slogan, “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux”. With the poor choice of verb, its advertisements were more effective in driving away customers than attracting them.

6. False language pairs
Though some words are used across different languages, their meaning often varies in each language. An example of such false language pairs is the word “mist”. In German, it refers to manure. Whisky company Irish Mist was apparently unaware of this when it marketed its product with the semi-Germanized name Irischer Mist in Germany. Sales for the product was expectedly poor, because few of the locals wanted to drink Irish dung.

7. Unfortunate word combinations
No, www.powergenitalia.com is not a porn website. It’s the website of Powergen Italia, an Italian maker of battery chargers. On the World Wide Web, whatever that sounds normal in one language does not necessarily translate well into another.

In short, it is not enough for translators to ensure grammatical accuracy and stylistic and syntactical appropriateness. A cross cultural analysis is also required in customizing a product, documentation or advertising to suit the conventions and market requirements of the target country.

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