There’s a fine line between a good idea and a bad one, and sometimes that line is a language barrier. Global business brings opportunity but also potential pitfalls, especially when it comes to translation.
Persil/OMO’s ‘Dirt is Good’ campaign is one of the world’s most successful advertisements. It’s a simple, intriguing idea conveyed in just three words.
‘Dirt is Good’ encouraged adventure and championed children’s creativity and freedom. It worked, and still works as a campaign in the US, the UK, Europe and Latin America. So the same campaign should have worked in West Africa, right? Wrong.
There’s more than one way your message can be lost in translation.
In 2013, research by JICA highlighted that 2 out of 3 people in Western Africa still don’t have access to a toilet. Sanitation continues to be a matter of life and death. An outbreak of cholera in 2014/2015 claimed over a thousand lives.
‘Dirt is Good’ doesn’t sell in West Africa because dirt isn’t good in West Africa. In our minds dirt brings back memories of jumping in puddles, climbing trees and playing football in the park. But to others it could mean the loss of a loved one.
Assume nothing when it comes to translation.
For another example of the disastrous effect of bad translation you need only look at HSBC. ‘The World’s Local Bank’, HSBC’s current tagline, was brought in to replace the previous tagline, ‘Assume Nothing’. Their original mistake cost the bank millions of dollars to rectify.
‘Assume Nothing’ worked as a line in certain Western countries which knew it meant that the bank would take no chances with your finances. Unfortunately, HSBC assumed this would communicate well everywhere. They were wrong.
‘Assume Nothing’ roughly translated to ‘Do Nothing’ in several countries. As a bank, that’s not really the message you want to give. Rebranding cost HSBC over $10 million, considerably more than the fees for one professional language expert.
To work globally, you must think locally.
The 1990’s ‘got milk’ adverts went down a treat in the US. The humorous ads featured well-known celebrities with milk mustaches. However, when they decided to run them in Mexico it turned out to be a marketing disaster. Not only did ‘got milk’ translate to “are you lactating?” it also gravely misunderstood their target audience.
The typical shopper in Mexico was the matriarch of each family who tended not to take kindly to the intrusive questioning in the advertisement. They were more likely to respond to something that references tradition and the family and not celebs with white mustaches.
A localised translation service would have helped avoid that disaster. Safe to say, nobody went out and got milk in Mexico.
Saving money can cost money.
It’s tempting for a business to go ‘in house’ in order to save money. If someone in the office speaks Spanish, wouldn’t it be quicker, cheaper, and more efficient to just ask them rather than hire a professional interpreter?
Perhaps that’s what happened at Coors. When they launched in Spain they kept the slogan that had served them so well in English speaking countries.
‘Turn it Loose’ perfectly defined a brand whose beers were all about relaxing with friends. Not in Spain. The slogan literally translates to “Suffering from Diarrhea”, not exactly what you want from a ice-cold beverage.
Coors, ‘got milk’ and Persil all prove that even big businesses can have translation mishaps of gastronomic proportions if they don’t invest in localising their campaign.