From Ikea advertising for sexy furniture to Pepsi bringing back ancestors to life – are these the biggest business blunders ever?

Entering international markets is exciting but some companies have gotten carried away over the years and committed numerous language and cultural blunders. And some mistakes present truly laughable lessons for UK firms

From Ikea advertising for sexy furniture to Pepsi bringing back ancestors to life – are these the biggest business blunders ever?

Taking your business to global territories is a big step that can unlock incredible success or, alternatively, grab the attention for all the wrong reasons. From Pepsi bringing “your ancestors back from the grave” in China to Ikea selling sexy furniture in Thailand, are these the funniest faux pas international businesses have ever made?  

(1) Pepsi lost in translation 

Getting lost in translation is run-of-the-mill but some examples really stand out and it’s something even Pepsi has had the honour of. During its expansion to China, the company aimed to attract with the alluring slogan “Pepsi brings you back to life.” Unfortunately, the elaborate Chinese translation turned it into the phrase “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.” It’s apparently setting slightly high expectations.

(2) Coca-Cola’s bad geography

Pleasing customers isn’t easy but some companies have gone hugely amiss. In attempt to add a personal touch to its New Year campaign in Russia, Coca-Cola created the bitter taste of anger by illustrating the country as a snow-covered map where Crimea, the contested land between Russia and Ukraine, was missing. After reissuing the advert, it sparked ire in Ukraine as Crimea this time showed up on Russia’s map. As a result, Ukrainian customers took to Twitter pouring Coke down their toilets. 

(3) Burger King’s World Cup own goal 

The World Cup season was exciting for all, which prompted businesses to offer freebies galore. But it was Burger King in Russia that came up with a really striking deal. The burger chain offered £36,000 and enough Whoppers to last a lifetime to Russian women impregnated by World Cup players. They advertised the deal on VK, a Russian social network, promising the prize to “girls who manage to get the best football genes,” and “lay down the success of the Russian national football team.” The beauty of marketing.

(4) Coors campaign goes down the toilet

Coors, the US beer brand, learned the hard way that translating slang isn’t the smartest move. When launching its “Turn It Loose” campaign in Spain, the company didn’t take into account the language specifics and the phrasing of the campaign ended up with an expression meaning “Suffer from diarrhoea.” At least, the Spanish will long remember the brand’s name – although they may decide sangria is a safer option.

(5) Pampers tells tall tales

Who would’ve known folklore is an essential consideration when exporting? Procter & Gamble, the American multi-brand consumer products firm, didn’t. It introduced Pampers to Japan with artwork of a stork delivering the nappies, a play on the myth of the baby-delivering birds recognised in various countries – excluding Japan. The picture unleashed confusion and locals had no idea why the baby was carried by a stork because the Japanese fable has giant floating peaches bring babies to their parents.

(6) HSBC requests you “do nothing”

Though their services revolve around numbers,banks aren’t immune to language boo-boos, which was demonstrated well when HSBC came up with a rather nonchalant call to action. The brand’s “Assume nothing” message was mistranslated in numerous territories as “Do nothing.” We bet it didn’t attract many to use their service though. The bank’s blunder meant it ended up spending $10m to change its tagline to “The world’s private bank.”

(7) The power of Electrolux

English-speaking companies have made more than their fair share of shockers but let’s not forget the error of Electrolux, the Swedish hoover manufacturer. Little did the Scandinavian brand know about English lingo when it popularised its products with the tagline “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.” While the message certainly amused a number of customers, we’re not quite sure it boosted sales.

(8) Happy Ramadan from Tesco

We admire Tesco’s intention to show inclusiveness of London’s diversified population as the chain arranged a Ramadan-friendly food stand in 2015. The only problem was one of the aisles in the Liverpool Street store displayed smokey bacon flavoured crisps with the message Ramadan Mubarak. The idea of wishing a happy Ramadan with a taste of pork was found a bit inappropriate but the man who first spotted the faux pas – Raza Hassan shared with the Independent that he was rather amused by the irony rather than actually offended.

(9) IKEA’s sexy furniture 

When IKEA opened a new store in Bangkok, it aimed to keep its roots and retain the original Swedish names of the furniture. Sounds reasonable, right? Interestingly though, some of them were slightly sexual. Indeed, a Norwegian town inspired the Redalen bed but in Thai the word is likened to a term for oral intercourse. Similarly, the retailer’s Jättebra plant is a term close to slang for sex. 

(10) Colgate’s infamous toothpaste 

When Colgate launched a batch of toothpaste in France, it did so under the moniker Cue. Apparently, the business neglected its market research because Cue was recognised as popular pornographic magazine in the country and the word was also used as slang for butt – something most people probably wouldn’t wish to be found anywhere near their mouths. 

Yoana Cholteeva
Yoana Cholteeva

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