Doing business across borders is never easy. Of all the factors businesses have to think about, language and culture sometimes drop to the bottom of the priority list. Such oversights can occasionally be harmless, occasionally funny and occasionally seriously bad business decisions. The one thing all share is the plain and simple fact that a little sprinkle of intercultural awareness could have gone a long way.
We have put together a possible top 10 cross cultural howlers. The list is by no means exhaustive and in fact we hope to bring you some more. Any you know of please let us know via the comments link below.
1. Locum were a Swedish company. As most companies do around Christmas time they liked to send out promotional materials to wish clients season’s greetings. In 1991 they decided to give their logo a little holiday spirit. However someone in charge of the new design came up with the idea of replacing the “o” in Locum with a heart shape. You can see the result yourselves. (If you don’t understand – then look up the word cum and you soon will!)
2. Matsushita Electric was promoting a new Japanese PC for internet users. Panasonic had created the new web browser and had received alicense to use the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker – Woody was to act as the interactive internet guide taking you on a tour and helping you with any problems.
The day before the launch of the marketing campaign, a Panasonic employee realised a fatal error and the plug was well and truly pulled. Why? The ads for the new product featured the following slogan:
“Touch Woody – The Internet Pecker.” The company only realised its cross cultural blunder when an embarrassed American explain what “touch Woody’s pecker” could be interpreted as!
3. Some genius at the Swedish furniture giant IKEA somehow came up with the name “FARTFULL” for one of its new desks. As you can image sales did not exactly hit the roof.
4. In the late 1970s, the British outlets of the American computer company Wang refused to use the HQs new slogan, “Wang Cares”. To British ears this sounds too close to “Wankers”.
5. The word “mist” seems to get many a company into trouble. Poorly thought through uses of the name in Germany has resulted in “Irish Mist” (an alcoholic drink), “Mist Stick” (a curling iron from Clairol), “Cashmere Mist” (deodorant from Donna Karen) and “Silver Mist” (Rolls Royce car). What the companies did not realise is “mist” in German means dung/manure. Fancy a glass of Irish dung?
6. “Traficante” and Italian mineral water found a great reception in Spain’s underworld. In Spanish it translates as “drug dealer”.
7. In 2002, Umbro the UK sports manufacturer had to withdraw its new trainers (sneakers) called the Zyklon. The firm received complaints from many organisations and individuals as it was the name of the gas used by the Nazi regime to murder millions of Jews in concentration camps.
8. Sharwoods, a UK food manufacturer, spent £6 million on a campaign to launch its new ‘Bundh’ sauces. It received calls from numerous Punjabi speakers telling them that “bundh” sounded just like the Punjabi word for “arse”.
9. Honda introduced their new car “Fitta” into Nordic countries in 2001. If they had taken the time to undertake some cross cultural marketing research they may have discovered that “fitta” was an old word used in vulgar language to refer to a woman’s genitals in Swedish, Norwegian and Danish. In the end they renamed it “Honda Jazz”.
10. A nice cross cultural example of the fact that all pictures or symbols are not interpreted the same across the world: staff at the African port of Stevadores saw the “internationally recognised” symbol for “fragile” (i.e. broken wine glass) and presumed it was a box of broken glass. Rather than waste space they threw all the boxes into the sea!