• Kanhaiya Maheshwary

Big brands and their funny communication failures - from Pepsi to Ford

Updated: Oct 3, 2020

Those who know me know about my innate fascination for intercultural communication. I love connecting with people from across the globe and try to understand their customs, traditionals, behavioral patterns and more. However, not every brand thinks likewise. After all, we've had some hilarious, and at times even some insensitive communication failures arising out of brands' inability to do their due diligence in foreign markets. Some of these experiences became an episode of laughter, but some of these moments cost brands tremendously too to the point where Nike was ousted from one of the countries!


Let's take a look at some infamously funny, embarrassing, and at times insensitive communication failures.


Soft Drinks, Hard Lessons


Pepsi in China

When Pepsi ventured into China, they translated their famous slogan 'Pepsi brings you back to life' in Simplified Chinese. However, what came out in the regional language equated to "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from grave!". That's one powerful potion I must say! But jokes apart, in Asian cultures people hold their ancestors in high regards. Such a blunder wasn't really taken well.



If rumours are to be believed, this wasn't the first debacle Pepsi had in China. When they tried to enter in 1950s, their slogan at the time was 'Be Sociable'. They messed up the translation, and ended up saying 'Be Intimate'. In the 1960s, they faced the fire again when they translated their then tagline 'Now it's Pepsi for those who think young' to 'New Pepsi is for people with the minds of kids'. During both these cases, sales dipped!


Coca Cola in China

When Coca Cola tried entering the Chinese market in 1920s, they were having a difficult time translating their brand name into something that could represent them well. First, they started by translating Coca Cola as it is, and it turned into "Bite the wax tadpole"! (蝌蚪啃蜡). Later, they researched the 3,000 characters and its various nuances and came up with a translation that at least conveyed the essence of their drink.


Vehicles and Genitals


Honda Fitta

When Honda Jazz, initially known by the name Honda Fitta was launched, some of the marketing collaterals for that car reached their Scandinavian offices. In Sweden and Norway, Fitta stood for vagina in Swedish and Norwegian slang.


Ford Pinto

Ford Pinto had the male equivalent of Honda's debacle. It was only after the car was launched in Brazil when it was brought to Ford's attention that pinto stood for penis in Brazilian slang. It didn't help the cause either when Ford Pinto was advertised as the smallest Ford since 1907.


Ford Pinto


Mitsubishi Pajero

Pajero was launched with the same name across the world. The only problem was, it shouldn't have been released with that name in Spain had the brand done their due diligence. Pajero means a wanker in Spanish.


Nike's Middle East crisis

Not all brand failures are funny and enjoyable. Ask Nike, who had to recall 38,000 pair of its famous Air shoes because apparently the font in which Air was written resembled the word 'Allah'. Muslims in the region were concerned that since the shoes will be used in mud, it would be a disrespect to the Almighty.


Nike not only recalled 38,000 pairs of shoes and diverted them to other markets, but they also donated $50,000 to build a playground for an Islamic elementary school somewhere in the US as a gesture that they are actively working to understand nuances of Islam.


Lessons from brand failures in foreign land

Culture is an indispensable part of the society. It affects everything we do, right from the food we eat to the way we react to situations. So whenever a brand is planning to launch or advertise in a foreign company, they should be very mindful of the culture and cultural nuances. Here are some of my key tips to ensure that your brand doesn't repeat what these brands above have done.

  1. Study the local culture: It is impossible to learn everything about a particular culture within several days or even months for that matter. But if you can find out some basic things such as the meaning behind numbers and colors, or festivals, that may go a long way in getting you acquainted with the basics.

  2. Localize the content: We saw above what happens when brands try to translate their existing content as it is. However, the need of the hour is to localize the content to make sure the local audiences can feel connected with the brand.

  3. Partner with local vendors: If you are a big corporation with pre-existing ties to ad agencies and media agencies in your home country, you might want to rethink when you enter into a new market. It is best to tie-up with a local agency who knows the ins and outs of the particular country.


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