Mike Fromowitz
Jun 22, 2015

Culture matters

Lack of cultural understanding can be disastrous, and avoiding pitfalls requires more than a cursory familiarity, writes Mike Fromowitz.

Mike Fromowitz
Mike Fromowitz

Campaign Asia-Pacific’s 24 April article by David Blecken, Taco Bell responds after Japan content gets lost in translation is just one example in a long history of blunders made by brand marketers when they fail to perform their due diligence before launching in a new country.

After its high profile re-entry into the Japanese market, Taco Bell, a subsidiary of Yum Brands, was encouraged to suspend and review its website as a result of criticism on social media over roughly translated Japanese.

Blecken points out that the furor began when Twitter users logged in to the company’s website and found featured menu items such as ‘cheesy chips’ rendered as 'yasuppoi' chips, suggesting the product looks cheap or poor quality. Its ‘Crunchwrap Supreme–beef’ offering was translated as ‘Supreme Court Beef’, while the phrase ‘We’ve got nothing to hide’ had become ‘What did we bring here to hide it?’.

A disastrous approach

It's common practice for many companies to simply "fill in the blanks" when they have an incomplete understanding of an ethnic market, but when dealing with cultural issues, relying on stereotypes and a lack of understanding can be disastrous. Nonetheless, too few companies targeting ethnic consumers do more than translate their marketing into the relevant language.

Taco Bell fell into the trap of being culturally lazy, much like some other Western brands that rely on brand messaging that uses restrictive global brand templates that don’t resonate with their consumers. It’s highly recommended that you base your understanding of cultural matters on consumer research—understanding not just the language but the way of life is a prerequisite. You need to be in culture as well as in language.

Global marketers today are charged with the none-too-easy task of creating messaging that is relevant to their diverse and evolving audiences—which requires more than a cursory understanding of their generalized heritages and identities. Marketers often assume that using the same strategy and translating their marketing communication into another language will be adequate. That just doesn’t hold up. Native language messages, especially those with commercial or informative content, tend to be more emotionally perceived than messages in a foreign language.


Translations and adaptations can hurt your brand

Taco Bell is not the only company to make the mistake. Plenty of other brand promotions have fallen flat on their face because key messages got lost in translation, but today the stakes are higher than ever; a poorly conceived ad in one market can damage the entire brand.

In the USA, one marketer issued coupons to Chinese-Americans in their native-language that offered $24 discounts with each purchase. The promotion was inappropriate because the number "2" in some Chinese communities means "easy," while the number "4" is the word "death."  The 'easy death' coupons were not well received.

During a Chinese New Year promotion, another marketer offered green baseball caps as premiums without realizing that among older generations, a man who wears a green cap is saying that his wife is cheating on him.

Sometimes we don’t get a second chance at re-entering a market like Taco Bell did, so it's important to note that every marketer needs to make a good first impression. Chinese and South Asian consumers, for example, are more critical and less forgiving than most general market consumers. It's most important that you know your audience and their cultural nuances so that you are able to evaluate promotional efforts with an eye toward ensuring cultural sensitivity and relevance.

When Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) entered the China market, to their horror they discovered that their slogan "finger lickin' good" came out as "eat your fingers off”.

Things weren't much easier for Coke's arch-rival Pepsi. When they entered the China market, the translation of one of their slogans "Pepsi Brings you Back to Life" was a little more literal than they intended. In Chinese, the slogan meant, "Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back from the Grave”.

Asian companies have similar problems when they enter English-speaking markets. Japan's second-largest tourist agency was mystified when it expanded to English-speaking countries and began receiving requests for sex tours. Realizing their mistake, the owners of the Kinki Nippon Tourist Company changed their name. However, the company didn't change the name of all its divisions, so visitors to Japan still have the opportunity to take a ride on the Kinki Nippon Railway.

No doubt, it’s difficult to create relevant advertising themes, positioning and stories that support a brand and work well across all cultures and consumer touchpoints. FIAT, the Italian automobile manufacturer, found that out when in 2008, they engaged Richard Gere as their spokesman for an ad campaign:  

Though the ad was never shown in China, the use of Richard Gere outraged the Chinese government and some consumers as Gere is a known pro-Tibet activist. The campaign caused FIAT to lose traction in a booming Chinese auto market. There are many other examples of global advertising concepts getting lost in translation, and today the stakes are higher than ever; a poorly conceived ad in one market can damage the entire brand.

From a Japanese perspective, it is also important to note that Japan is not just made up of one homogenized demographic. Cultural variations may be subtle and endlessly complex, even within a given cultural group in the same marketplace. Thus, it is critical for marketers to recognize, cultivate and reconcile the diversity of a country’s consumer base, especially their generational differences.  For brands to be global, marketers need to create ideas and stories that will travel across countries and ethnicities without being lost in translation.

Google Translate is not a multicultural strategy

The way Taco Bell Japan communicated online made Japanese locals feel they were not valued. But if you are a Taco Bell fan, you’ll be happy to know that the chain has found more enduring success this time around, despite its marketing gaffe. The huge crowds of people that greeted this Japanese store on its opening is a sure sign that customers in Japan and other Asian markets are ready for Taco Bell.

The Importance of language

Savvy global marketers realize the importance of using a target audience's own language in their selling efforts. Japan is, after all, a culture built around its own unique language. The Japanese consumers’ desire to taste foreign fast food (in this case Mexican-style) does not mean a desire to use or learn another language other than Japanese. Japanese is the language of the country; the language the population speaks to discover and explore the world; the language they use to think and dream. Get it right and a successful marketing campaign can pay dividends.

It goes without saying that in-language advertising and promotions work best, and that consumers are always impressed and motivated when ads, displays and collateral materials are presented in their native language.

Today’s consumer is smart and fast at recognizing promotional efforts that take general market advertising or point-of-sale materials and translate them verbatim. When you do that you are not talking to your audience, you're talking down to them. That's not smart advertising … that's condescending and patronizing.

You can't just translate an ad—you have to 'transcreate' it. To do the job correctly you need people who understand the ad message and have an excellent grasp of Japanese as well as English. The same people should also have a thorough understanding of the culture of the native country involved. If you do not really understand your target audience in their local context, it’s easy to spend a lot of money on translations and not actually communicate well. Companies seeking to sell their products to ethnic communities must cross both cultural and language barriers with their marketing material.

A famous brand that did it right

One high-profile brand that got it right was Johnnie Walker.  The brand was able to more than double its global business in 10 years because it started with a simple but powerful idea that addresses a universal human motivation that crosses cultures.

Johnnie Walker found a positioning that goes beyond the usual product attributes and addressed a universal human motivation. The brand understood that people around the world, regardless of culture or country of origin, seek to advance in their lives. This insight unlocked both a global positioning—“inspiring men to progress”— and an advertising expression: “Keep Walking.”

Johnnie Walker’s print and poster campaign was very powerful across Asia, having featured more than 100 inspirational quotes from several cultures, including Lao Tsu’s “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. Over a period of about 13 years, and 70 TV ads later, the “Keep Walking” campaign has transformed the Johnnie Walker and Scotch whisky business globally.

Cultural differences call for different marketing plans, messages and media. No matter the language, marketers should not merely translate or adapt their messaging. Understanding the cultural and media habits of a country shows respect. It will also lead you to communications that are highly effective and stand a better chance at making the sale.

Mike Fromowitz., a longtime Asia-Pacific ad man, is now partner and chief creative officer of Ethnicity Multicultural Marketing + Advertising.


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