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Bite the wax tadpole!

I know many of you are heading off overseas in search of work. Things are a bit tough here, so you’re off to sunnier climes, where you’ve head there may be a bit of work on.

Well, it’s a good idea. But I just thought I’d drop in a cautionary tale on the importance of understanding the local customs. You know the stuff – give your business card with your right hand in the middle east (or is that left, note to self, check on this before travelling to Saudi); pour your dining/meeting partner’s beer in Prague, and not your own; don’t beckon to the Japanese, that gesture means something quite different in Tokyo; and don’t bother with small talk in Germany, or sarcasm in America.

One thing you need to take into account is your product, company or service branding. You may know that Coca Cola’s first efforts to translate their brand into Chinese produced a set of symbols that meant “bite the wax tadpole”, or that Pepsi’s slogan “Come alive” when translated for the same market became “bring your ancestors back from the dead”. Perhaps you know that the Ford Pinto failed in Brazil partly because “pinto” means “small willy” and that the now bankrupt General Motors Chevy Nova was a bit of a flop in Spanish speaking markets owing to “no va” meaning “doesn’t work”?

 linguistically challenged brandsDoes this coffee promise more than a caffeine rush? The linguistic minefield that faces any brand wishing to internationalise was brought home to me when encountering while on a recent trip a charming brand of rather good spanish coffee, which might not achieve mass market success if launched in the UK.


cafe brand with ooer missus name

The food here is much better than you might expect.


At the airport on the way home, I found myself in a very acceptable catering establishment with an unfortunate name, which might also curtail its success in the anglo-saxon world.


bonka ars branding combo

Some brand partnerships are made in Heaven. Others, according to the Old Testament at least, are made in Hell.


And sadly the efforts of the two organisations to partner their powerful brands look likely to only have a positive effect on sales somewhere where speaking English is a secondary skill.

There’s a lot you can do to avoid such problems - too much to put in this article, there’s probably a book you could write on each country or culture. But there’s a few handy sources of advice – UKTI, who exist to help British firms win work overseas; the British Council, who have outposts in most places you’ve thought of going, and many you haven’t;  and the trusty trade officials at the relevant British Embassy or Consulate.

These guys know more about the foreign culture in which they are immersed than they can remember about the UK – so if you’re looking at an export initiative – see them first.

Are you heading for the rapidly growing Croatian market? What does your brand say in serbo-croat? Find out before you hand over a business card, eh?

Ross Sturley is Principal of Chart Lane (, a strategic marketing and communications consultancy, and a seasoned observer of international branding flops, like Pschitt lemonade (France), and Kinki Travel (Japan). He is also a Construction News blogger, and committee member for the Chartered Institute of Marketing Construction Industry Group (CIMCIG –, whose conference on December 2 this year – Strategy 2010 – will help construction marketers prepare for the challenges of the coming year.

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