When advertising translation goes wrong – localization fails from around the world

July 31, 2019
When advertising translation goes wrong – localization fails from around the world

As professional translators, we invest a great deal of time and energy in ensuring that the quality of our translations is up to scratch.

Reviewing, tweaking the odd word, catching typos and then proofing all over again is all part of the art of producing an accurate translation. 

However, when it comes to localization, not everyone is quite so on the ball. Companies that rely on machine translation open themselves up to potential localization fails every time they do so.

After all, a computer can’t provide localization services, only the translation element of the task (and even the quality of that can be questionable – but that’s a whole other topic to explore!).

As such, the internet is rife with examples of companies that have failed to localize their content before presenting it to foreign audiences. We’ve selected some of the juiciest examples for you to enjoy. 

The importance of professional translation and localization 

Before we take a look at these localization fails, it’s worth remembering just how important professional translation services and localization services are.

Businesses around the world rely on these services to deliver their messages accurately in order to operate efficiently. Whether the translation relates to business to business or business to client interactions, there’s no room for anything other than the highest quality translations. 

Failing to translate and localize content properly can damage a company’s reputation. In some instances, it can cause people to laugh at the company for a silly blunder, but in others the repercussions are more serious. A company that offends an audience through a cultural gaffe may not find it so easy to recover from the mistake and can lose revenue as a result.

That’s why localization is so important. Sadly, in the examples below, the companies in question didn’t quite get it right. 

Nothing sucks like an Electrolux

Saying something sucks is a commonly recognised way of saying it’s bad in much of the English-speaking world.

However, that’s not the case in every country – and certainly wasn’t in Sweden in the 1960s. As such, when Electrolux launched its “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux” campaign in the US, hoping to highlight the powerful suction action of its vacuum cleaners, the response wasn’t quite what the company had been imagining. 

The Honda Fitta

In 2001, Honda launched its latest stylish, compact car to global audiences. The Honda Fitta was well received in a number of countries, but not so much in Sweden.

Honda’s localization experts had failed to point out that the word ‘fitta’ in Swedish (as well as Danish and Norwegian) is a vulgar term for female genitals. One quick rebrand later and European buyers found themselves enjoying the Honda Jazz instead. 

Do nothing 

Honda’s misstep wouldn’t have been without cost. In addition to the car itself, all manuals and advertising materials would have needed to be tweaked in order to incorporate the new name.

However, the cost pales into insignificance compared with the $10 million price tag incurred by HSBC when it failed to localize its global private banking operations back in 2009. 

The bank’s “Assume nothing” US campaign had been well received, but the concept didn’t quite translate to international audiences.

Instead, HSBC ended up rolling out a campaign that was presented as “Do nothing” to much of the world. Hardly the proactive and exciting message that the bank had intended.

The result was a rebrand of the entire global private banking operation, with HSBC becoming (ironically, given the previous localization gaffe) “The world’s local bank” instead. 

Hardware concerns 

For global electronics brand Apple, it wasn’t a product name or tagline that tripped then up, but a failure to localize the product itself. When the Apple II was produced for European and Japanese markets back in the 1980s and 1990s, the company saw fit to change the power supply and several hardware components for the new markets.

Unfortunately, keyboard design was largely overlooked for European audiences (although changes were made for Japanese buyers), meaning that users in many countries were unable to type accents, umlauts and other core components of their languages. Needless to say, the Apple II Euro Plus model was not a commercial success. 

Final thoughts

The explosion of e-commerce in recent years has reshaped the global market place. Indeed, DHL refers to cross-border sales as “the new frontier in e-commerce” due to the internet’s lack of boundaries, in this article on selling internationally. It’s now more important than ever to get translation and localization right, as the internet never forgets! 

Have you helped to save a translation client from a localization gaffe at any point? If so, why not share your experiences by leaving a comment below? 

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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