Pepsi Generation will bring your ancestors back from the dead. At least, that’s what the ads claimed in China.
But this wasn’t a one-time accident. There’s the often-told (maybe untrue) story of how the Chevy Nova’s sales in Latin America were miserable—no va, it turns out in Spanish means “won’t go.” In all cross-cultural, cross-linguistic marketing, you’ve got to be careful. Some of the world’s best-known brands have tasted the bitter humiliation of poor slogan translations—especially in China. Not only are foreign marketers dealing with the fundamental cultural differences, but also two very different linguistic milieus. Here, brand and ad translation have become arts in their own right.
The popular French megastore Carrefour is known in Chinese as Jia Le Fu (家乐福). Not only is it a nice sonic approximation of the original name, but it also makes for good Chinese marketing: “Family, Happy, Good Fortune.” The name might not draw many customers in the US or France, but in China, it’s a hit. Unlike their Western counterparts, who prefer to think of themselves as individuals, Chinese consumers are attracted to things like family, harmony and stability.
Chinse is based on symbols and their meanings, while English is based on letters and sounds. This is why translating something like Coca-Cola into Chinese can be so difficult. While Coca-cola works as a brand name across the world, in China there was a problem. There were hundreds of different characters—with the same sounds, but very different meanings—that could have been used to spell out the name. The characters originally used to market the soda were chosen haphazardly. The first translation that appeared? “Bite the wax tadpole.” The next try was “Wax-flattened mare.” Neither were very appetizing.
When Coca-Cola officially launched their Chinese name, they spent time and money researching the optimal character combination. They arrived at 可口可乐, pronounced Kekou Kele and meaning “Delicious and Happy.” Now that’s a seller!
In English, the name of the laundry detergent Tide brings to mind lapping waves, the sea, and clean, fresh sea breezes. The Chinese name for Tide is far more utilitarian: Tai Zi (汰渍), literally meaning “Removes stains.” The camera juggernaut Canon? Translated to Jia Neng（佳能）, or “Excellent skills.” Both Tai Zi and Jia Neng retain some of the English name’s phonetics while translating nicely. But sometimes there’s no way to keep the sounds of the company’s name. This was discovered by P&G—in Chinese, the sound pi can mean “fart.”
The problem exists both ways, of course. When the popular Chinese Jianlibao began marketing to English-speaking consumers, they didn’t bother to change their name. In Chinese, the soft-drink, 健力宝, is a well-considered name: 健 (jiàn, health), 力 ( lì, strength) and 宝 (bǎo, treasure). But overseas, customers could hardly pronounce the soda’s name—sales never took off.
Aside from specific translation problems, there’s also the broader challenge of dealing with a different culture’s value system. Across cultures, different things make different people tick.
Subtle cultural nuances lead to the messages in advertisements being completely misread. Due to tricky wording, one Pepsi Generation ad campaign in China apparently claimed the soda could “Bring your ancestors back from the dead.” That’s quite a potent drink!
Less humorously, in 2003, the Japanese company Toyota ran a Land Cruiser ad featuring an SUV with stone lions saluting it, and a slogan that translated as “Domineering, Obey Me!” Stone lions represent the honor of China. They also recall the stone-lion filled Marco Polo Bridge, which is a symbol of Japan’s WWII occupation of China. The SUV looked like a military vehicle—a Japanese military vehicle. Horrified, many Chinese saw this advertisement as depicting the honorable Chinese “obeying” Japanese dominance. The ad was pulled immediately. Even though the campaign was created by a Chinese agency, this shows how tricky it is to navigate cultural associations while marketing a product.
With the rise in global campaigns, new marketing strategies emerge. It’s not just about translating a product’s catchphrase; it’s about understanding another culture. More attention is being focused on localizing the ad’s message.
McDonalds’ slogan “I’m lovin’ it,” directly translated to “Wo aizhe ta,” would reek of a cheesy romance. “Love” isn’t young or hip, so they used “like” instead. “It” sounds the same as “him,” or “her,” so “it” was just dropped. And, to add a sense of confidence to the statement, confidence aspired to by Chinese youth, the word “just” was thrown in. “I’m lovin’ it” became “I just like,” and “Wǒ jiù xǐhuɑn!” (我就喜欢!) sent the same message to a vastly different culture. Whether you’re a Beijinger or a New Yorker, now you can buy a cheeseburger and feel just as good about it.
- That slogan is stuck in my head.
- “Afraid of excessive internal heat? Drink Wanglaoji!”