There are approximately 6,500 spoken languages in the world today, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that things can go wrong when brands try to internationalise their branding. From one country’s culture to another, translating marketing campaigns abroad can be a veritable linguistic minefield.
So to show you just how badly things can go wrong, we’ve collated 11 examples – some old, some new - of brand slogans and names that got spectacularly lost in translation.
1. Taco Bell struggled with its Japanese site
It’s up-to-scratch now, but back in 2015, the fast food brand was criticised for its seemingly “Google-translated” Japanese website. Tomoyuki Akiyama, a multilingual communications professional based in Tokyo, noticed that “Cheesy chips” was poorly translated as “Low quality chips” and “Crunchwrap Supreme–beef” became “Supreme Court Beef”. If this wasn’t enough, the phrase “We’ve got nothing to hide” became “What did we bring here to hide it?”.
2. Salem cigarettes took freedom too far
Salem are a key part of the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company brand, famous for being the industry’s first filter-tipped menthol cigarettes. The American slogan for Salem cigarettes, “Salem - Feeling Free”, however, became famous for the wrong reasons when it was translated for the Japanese market to “When smoking Salem, you will feel so refreshed that your mind seems to be free and empty.”
3. Pepsi championed reincarnation
This classic example might be over-used in translation discussions, but it’s too good not to include. When PepsiCo launched in China with the cheery slogan "Come alive with Pepsi", it somehow neglected to realise that this directly translated became "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead".
4. Paxam got on the wrong soap box
The Iranian consumer goods company marketed laundry soap using the Farsi word for "snow", which is all well and good until it’s translated into English and distributed as "Barf Soap."
5. McDonalds made a gross faux-pas
We thought McDonald’s biggest fault to date was popularising the term “French fries” (apparently they originate from Belgium), but how wrong we were. When McDonald's first brought its signature Big Mac to France, it was translated to "Gros Mec”, which in French reads as "Big Pimp".
6. Orange made a cardinal sin
“The future’s bright, the future’s Orange” is a well-known and memorable slogan that is recognisable across the world. However, upon the campaign’s launch in 1994, the telecommunications company caused uproar in the Irish Catholic population as the word ‘Orange’ evokes the Orange Order, a heavily Protestant organisation in Northern Ireland.
7. American Motors gave itself a bad name
It’s not just a poorly-translated slogan that can land a brand in trouble - sometimes it’s simply the product itself. American Motors unfortunately discovered this when they launched their latest car, the Matador, in Spanish-speaking Puerto Rico and suffered weak sales. Instead of conveying the idea of bravery and strength as ‘matador’ does in English, the name translated literally in Spanish to “Killer”.
8. Donald Trump showed poor translation skills
Donald Trump isn’t exactly known for having the highest approval rating amongst the American Hispanic community. So to combat this during the election, he had members of the crowd in his video ops hold signs that read “Hispanics Para Trump”. Any Spanish speaker would instantly point out, however, that this just doesn’t sound right. Firstly, “Hispanics” should be changed to the Spanish “Hispanos”, plus in this context it shouldn’t be “por” but “con”. The only word that is right in this three-word slogan is “Trump”.
9. Frank Perdue hatched a weak tagline
Frank Perdue might be credited with creating the first brand for chicken, but he certainly wouldn’t win the award for best tagline translation. When the company expanded to target Spanish markets, the slogan developed from "It takes a strong man to make a tender chicken" to "It takes an aroused man to make a chicken affectionate".
10. Coors’ loose translation
This marketing blunder is so famous it’s almost an urban legend. The popular beer company, seeing great success with its tagline “Turn it loose”, attempted to adapt it to a Spanish market, resulting in the slogan “Suffer from diarrhea”.
11. Israeli radio’s dating mishap
It’s not uncommon for Israeli radio and press outlets to run ads for different businesses in a mix of languages, such as Arabic, Hebrew and English. However, one Israeli dating company with the Hebrew word “intimi” (meaning intimate) in its title, saw the translation warp into “Intimidate Dating Service” on its English listeners.
And there we have it. 11 translating mishaps from brands big and small showing us that international marketing is an important thing to get right. Got some brand slogans you'd like to share? Let us know in the comments below.