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International growth: How 10 brands got it very, very wrong

International expansion is the dream for many brands – taking their home markets by storm, and following this initial success with Apple-style global domination – but some are more successful than others.

For some, the market simply isn’t there. For others, it proves too tough to compete with existing established players. For an unlucky few, a lack of research into these new markets leads to failure on a spectacular scale.

We’re often asked how we can ensure relevance for a European or US brand when we’re UK-based. Our response? By understanding how design, branding and packaging will resonate in the target market. A global, “one size fits all” approach simply doesn’t work.

In essence, it’s about understanding the culture of the target markets. Get it right, and you could be on track for a success story like that of McDonalds. Get it wrong and, well – read on for 10 “how not to” examples.

Imagery matters: Pampers in Japan

When Proctor & Gamble launched Pampers nappies into Japan, they were mystified as to why sales were low. The US commercial, showing a stork delivering nappies to homes, had been dubbed in Japanese, and the product packaging in the ad switched to the new version – featuring the same stork. The stork was what caused the confusion (and some concern). In Japanese folklore, babies are delivered on giant floating peaches. Cultural relevance is vital.

Lost in translation: Parker Pens in Mexico

The launch of Parker Pens in Latin America demonstrated how important it is to check translations before sign-off. Choosing to claim “it won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you”, the marketing team failed to check whether “embarazar” was really the word they wanted. As a result, those who chose a Parker Pen in Mexico were promised “it won’t leak in your pocket and impregnate you”. Reassuring – but certainly embarrassing from a marketing perspective.

Messing with tradition: Betty Crocker in Japan

In the 1960s, General Mills decided Japan was ready for Betty Crocker, but realised that most Japanese households had no oven. Their solution? A cake mix that could be prepared in the rice cooker: a gadget every family owned. GM, however, encountered two issues.

Firstly, Japanese families were eating rice three times a day, but cooking one batch and keeping in the rice cooker before serving. Secondly, rice has a traditional value, and families simply weren’t willing to risk its purity by cooking chocolate or vanilla cake in the same device. Brands looking to go global must research their target markets – not just in terms of language, but in terms of culture, traditions and behaviours that may affect a new product’s performance.

Same word, different meaning: Puffs tissues in Germany

While a product’s original brand name can work across the globe, some instances call for a change. This was the case when Puffs tissues made their debut in Germany. If brand execs had spoken to German consumers, they’d have discovered that “Puff” is a colloquialism for “brothel”, and changed the product’s name accordingly.

Getting religious: Orange in Northern Ireland

“The future’s bright, the future’s Orange” was certainly not offensive to the English when telecoms operator Orange launched in 1994. That wasn’t the case in Northern Ireland, though, where a new slogan had to be thought up pronto. Pre-Good Friday Agreement, tensions between the Catholics and the Orange Order of Protestants were high enough, without the mobile network operator adding more fuel to the fire.

Glorifying child labour: PepsiCo in India

It’s not just packaging design, slogans and brand names that can be a minefield: it’s advertising too. In 2004, PepsiCo India were slammed for appearing to glorify child labour, by depicting a young boy serving Pepsi to the Indian cricket team. The ad was subsequently taken off-air.

Harking back to Nazi Germany: Siemens Zyklon range

German manufacturer Bosch Siemens Hausgeraete should have known better when it filed two US Patent & Trademark Office applications for the name “Zyklon” in 2001. While “Zyklon” translates to “cyclone” in English, Zyklon B was also the name of the lethal gas used in Nazi concentration camps. Jewish groups condemned the application (later abandoned) – which included gas ovens among the products to be launched in the US. Careless all round.

Ignoring current affairs: Hong Kong Tourism Board in Britain

“Hong Kong will take your breath away”, said the national tourist board ads which appeared in British magazines in 2003. Unfortunately, the timing corresponded with the Sars epidemic. Sars – severe acute respiratory syndrome – is a strain of pneumonia that began in China and spread to Hong Kong, where it caused a large number of fatalities. Not the best way to encourage tourists.

Inventing a need: Pepsodent in Southeast Asia

Pepsodent was convinced that the population of Southeast Asia would relish its toothpaste, marketed as being great for whitening teeth. However, black teeth are a status symbol in Southeast Asian cultures: natives chew betel nuts to make their gnashers as dark as possible. Pepsodent’s “You’ll wonder where the yellow went” slogan fell on deaf ears.

Carelessly changing colour: PepsiCo in Southeast Asia

Even something as simple as a colour change can have a huge impact on how a brand is perceived. In the 1950s, PepsiCo changed the colour of their Southeast Asian vending machines from a deeper blue to a light, ice blue – and reportedly lost their dominant market share. Why? Because in that part of the world, light blue is a colour associated with death and mourning.

Culture affects everything that we do – and that includes a brand’s international expansion. Lack of research into a company’s culture, language or symbolism can mean failure to capture market share, offended consumers, wasted time and resources, and potentially even lawsuits.

Whether launching in their home market or expanding overseas, we always work with our clients to understand their audience before creating a design-led approach that is relevant, appealing and stands the best chance of success.

While it can be tempting to simply transplant a successful brand directly into a new market, analysing how all aspects of a brand will be impacted by a country’s culture – and making the necessary changes – will lead to the most positive results.

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