Lost in Translation: Branding

Lost in Translation: Branding

Lost in Translation: Branding

Branding is big business. It gives your business personality. It lets you express who you are and what you do. A good slogan or strapline can take a company to the highest heights or see them hit rock bottom. Nowadays, social media exposes us to countless new businesses and branding is what sets your company apart so you stand out from the crowd. Branding is an international business: what works in your language may not have quite the same effect in other languages. Which is why it’s so important to work with human translators who can provide alternative options and explain why one slogan works better over another. Here are some companies who took every care over their English content but should have put a little more effort into their foreign content.

Parker Pen

The iconic pen company set its sights on conquering the Mexican ballpoint market with its slogan, “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you.” Instead of the correct translation of “embarrass”, the company went with a false friend and used the term “embarazar”, which is a Spanish word but means something completely different! Here’s the slogan that Parker Pen used to market its ballpoints in Mexico: “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant.” At least that’s one less thing to worry about!


Our next branding horror takes us from the cradle to the grave. Pepsi wanted to turn around its image as a boring brand in the 60s and give it some oomph in the face of Coca Cola, so it came up with the slogan: “Come alive! You’re in the Pepsi generation.” When the campaign reached China however, it was dead in the water due to a mistranslation. The Chinese version of the slogan translated as “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.” Promising to bring people back from the dead by drinking cola in a country that worships its ancestors is a big no-no!


It can be tricky to have a slogan that translates what you want to say in a snappy strapline that’s loaded with meaning, as HSBC found out. “Assume Nothing” was the slogan that resulted in the company undergoing a $10 million dollar rebranding campaign. The bank wanted to show that everything and anything is possible with its bank, but “assume” can be interpreted many ways and several countries translated the slogan as “Do Nothing”. Needless to say, when HSBC realised the error of their ways they certainly “did something” and spent a huge amount of money adjusting their campaign to something that was far easier to translate: “The world’s private bank.”


A good translation isn’t just about language, it also takes into account the audience’s culture and history. A good example of a company failing to consider a country’s culture is Coors. The beer brand launched their Emborícuate campaign in time for the New York Puerto Rican Day Festival in 2011. What does “emborícuate” mean? It’s a play on words that Coors came up with to mean “become Puerto Rican”. But their plan backfired as native speakers interpreted it as “emborráchate”, meaning to get drunk. Needless to say, the campaign sparked huge outrage among the Puerto Rican community as it implied getting drunk was more important to them than celebrating the day.


You have to take into account how different countries use words that are commonly found all over the world. Not every country has the same understanding or meaning, which makes it so important to work with a native translator or speaker to ensure you get your point across. The Swedish brand Electrolux learnt the localisation lesson the hard way when it started selling its vacuum cleaners in America with the slogan: “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.” The company wanted to highlight the suction power with a nice bit of alliteration, but the slogan did anything but sell Electrolux as a quality company to American audiences.


Another example of a localisation fail is the launch of the Mitsubishi Pajero in the 1980s. All you Spanish speakers out there will know that “pajero” means “jerk”, but Mitsubishi hadn’t done their homework and didn’t realise that nobody would want to drive in a car which would make you a laughing stock! What happened? The car company had to rename the Pajero as the Mitsubishi Montero in all Spanish-speaking countries. A costly endeavour that could quite easily have been avoided.

Whether it’s translation or localisation, you can avoid upsetting or insulting your audience, making your business a laughing stock or putting people off your product by working with a translation company and human translators. Tell Active Languages the message that you want to put across and we’ll take care of your branding for you! Contact us and expand your business worldwide.

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