There is an expression in English that people use to describe moments when coincidence seems to be working at its impressive best to bring about the most unexpected of circumstances. Perhaps you are talking to someone you have just met and, as the conversation develops, you discover that your parents grew up in the same small village in Andalucía. Or you walk out of a shop while on holiday in Australia, bump into an old school friend and utter those time-honoured magical words: ‘It’s a small world’.
What is interesting about this phrase is that it has, in recent times, taken on an additional meaning. We now use it as an observation of the way that technology seems to have shrunk the world, or in reality brought us all a whole lot closer together within it. With worldwide communication in an instant, inter-continental trading commonplace, and global travel often easier than it is inside your own country, we truly do live in ‘a small world’.
Yet, it is still easy for the largest of global brands and international corporations to make mega-mistakes in translation. Here are a few of my favourite (almost Freudian) commercial foul-ups:
‘Nothing sucks like an Electrolux’. When the Swedish vacuum cleaner manufacturer decided to launch its products in the US, technically there was nothing wrong with their slogan. Suck does mean to remove the air from a confined space, to create a vacuum that will draw in dust and fluff, and of course their intention was to suggest that their products performed this action better than the market’s alternatives. But if only their researchers had looked into American-English a little further, they’d have seen that ‘to suck’ to Americans means to be rubbish (rather than to clean it up).
‘Come alive with the Pepsi Generation’. Urban myth, with an element of truth, has it that when Pepsi used this slogan in the 1960s it caused quite a spooky stir in China, or at least it suggested that the sugary drink might cause a stir among the undead. The literal translation of this phrase implied that Pepsi had the power to bring dead ancestors back to life, a claim that apparently caused offence and confusion in equal measure.
As a possible consequence of that error, the global drinks giant has never quite beaten its eternal rival, Coca-Cola, to the number one spot in that part of the world, although it is interesting to note that in some Chinese dialects the phonetic pronunciation of Coca-Cola, ‘Ke-kou-Ke-la’, can be understood as ‘bite the wax tadpole’. Clearly wax models of baby frogs are more palatable than the idea of resurrection.
‘Assume nothing!’ HSBC currently uses the tagline ‘The world’s local bank’ with the emphasis being that they provide a local service where they understand different cultures. Most of their advertising is built around this philosophy and that they make no assumptions about individuals’ circumstances. In fact, the idea of ‘assuming nothing’ seemed like a smart one to the marketing gurus who first started to play with it in 2009. What could possibly go wrong with a two-word slogan that encapsulated a global banking giant’s worldwide philosophy? It was brilliant.
But they quickly hit a problem – they had made a big assumption! No one had checked what the translation might be in all of the different countries, especially the local areas which were the very markets HSBC was aiming to impress. In many languages (major and minor ones), the phrase was translated as ‘do nothing’, which is probably not a particularly good message from a forward-thinking, progressive local bank.
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