When localization goes wrong
Localization is essential for anyone who’s serious about introducing their business to new countries and cultures. A decent localization service can make the difference between a company slotting smoothly into a new country and its name becoming synonymous with snickers and giggles.
Localization is the adaptation of documents for foreign audiences. It relies on the individual carrying out the work to be familiar with local cultures, customs and slang. While translation converts text from one language to another, localization ensures that the text will convey the intended meaning without causing any unintended offence or hilarity.
Localization is often considered as an activity carried out in tandem with translation, but it can apply equally to same-language materials. Consider an English haulage company looking to expand to Ireland, which specializes in transporting livestock. The company might seek to convey to Irish farmers that it could move their animals from one location to another. While ‘shift’ in English is an acceptable term for ‘move,’ in Ireland it’s slang for ‘kiss.’ Thus an offer to shift cattle or shift pigs on behalf of Irish farmers might not be taken quite as intended by a leaflet writer’s English author!
There have been many instances of localization going wrong over the years and the internet has ensured that such fails are no longer only known in the country where they took place. Some surprisingly large companies have fallen victim to a lack of localization services when targeting new audiences overseas.
Apple was one such company. Its Apple II launched to European audiences in the early 1980s. Sadly nobody had pointed out to Apple that European languages use accents, umlauts and other special characters. As a result, the Apple II Europlus model’s keyboard was not localized prior to its launch, meaning that many of those who bought it were not able to type properly in their native language. Needless to say the model failed.
Starbucks is another corporation that one might imagine was big enough to know better. It already had a sizeable European operation (in addition to its US base) when it launched in Germany. As with other Starbucks’ branches, one of the main drinks on offer was the latte. Used in English to describe a coffee made from steamed milk and espresso, the term is descended from the Italian ‘caffè latte,’ meaning milk coffee. Unfortunately for Starbucks, latte in German means something else entirely: ‘pole,’ which is used as a slang term for ‘erection.’ Luckily, the German sense of humour is such that they embraced the drink, albeit with a lot of giggling, and Starbucks has stuck with using the term.
Not all localization fails end so happily. Pepsi’s marketing slogan of, “Come alive! You’re in the Pepsi Generation!” did not go down well in China, where it was delivered as, “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead.”
The California Milk Advisory Board’s “Got milk?” marketing campaign was another high profile fail, although this one was caught at the market research stage when exploring the market in Mexico. With a high percentage of Hispanic and Latino residents in California, one wonders that the Milk Advisory Board was not able to source a single person who was able to tell them that their slogan translated to “Are you lactating?” in Spanish. Thankfully their market research did the job and caught the error, along with a warning that the idea of running out of milk isn’t funny to many of the mothers and grandmothers of Mexican households and is actually fairly offensive to some.
The prevalence of localization fails at such a high level is really quite surprising, particularly when one considers that the process of engaging an individual or company to provide localization services is neither time consuming nor expensive. Localization experts are available around the world to assist companies from large to small in presenting their goods and messages to new audiences without causing offense or creating unintended hilarity at the company’s expense, yet time and again we are presented with examples of localization fails.
Perhaps one of the most expensive localization mishaps was that of HSBC. The bank took its global private banking operations from a US base to the rest of the world back in 2009. The intentions of its “Assume nothing” campaign had served HSBC well with American audiences for around five years, but when the tagline turned into “Do nothing” for several of its new audiences, HSBC had to undertake a global rebrand. Thus the tagline of “The world’s private bank” was born, at an eye-watering reported cost of $10 million.
Many companies won’t find that their localization mistakes cost them quite this much, but the HSBC experience serves as a warning to all companies who plan to trade overseas – never assume that just because a slogan or brand name works in one country, it will succeed in another. Something to which the makers of Fart chocolate bars in Poland and Pee Cola in Ghana can no doubt attest!
Louise Taylor is the content manager of Tomedes and she writes content on the Tomedes Blog as well as other sections on the website.