The Beauty and Bother of Cross-Border Branding

In my early days of living in the ever-sunny Madrid, I would regularly tell people I was caliente, the direct translation of the word ‘hot’.

But it doesn’t quite mean that in everyday discourse. In fact, it means ‘horny’. Hence the funny looks when I announced (in a client meeting) that I was super caliente.

To say I was embarrassed would be an understatement. Luckily, I didn’t follow this up by telling the client I was embarassada – because that means pregnant.

When it comes to language missteps, Spain has delivered a swift kick to the crotch of many a brand over the years. When Chevrolet released the Nova in Spain, it seems nobody bothered to check its translation. In Spanish, no-va quite literally means ‘does not go’. Far from ideal for a car brand.

Seeing this, Mitsubishi said “hold my beer” and went one step further. They released the Pajero, which, unfortunately, means ‘w*nker’.

Speaking of beer, Coors had a campaign line that was going great guns in their English-speaking regions: Turn It Loose. A jolly sentiment for a beer company, but it was quickly poo-poohed when it reached brand-busting España. Translated, it pretty much means ‘Coors will give you diarrhoea’. Now, strictly speaking, I suppose this is true if you drink enough of it. But still.

Bad translation can be pretty harmless in the grand scheme of things. Like when KFC's famous slogan Finger Lickin' Good was interpreted as 'Eat Your Fingers Off' in China. But for many brands, it's a source of embarrassment that will live long in the memory.

In 2001, Honda (car brands need better research teams, right?) introduced their latest car to the Nordic countries - a car called Fitta. Unfortunately, to the Nordics, Fitta is a very vulgar word for female genitalia. Going on to describe the car as “small on the outside, but large on the inside” only compounded the problem.

Truth is, in the world of branding, even if you keep things simple, there’s almost always a language faux-pas lying in wait to trip you up.

If you start an air conditioning company in Indonesia, don’t call it Air, because that means water. In Georgia, mama means dad.

Ever hear about the Clairol Mist Stick? It's a beautifully designed curling iron that took on a whole new meaning in Germany. You see, mist means ‘shit’. And you definitely don't want to be running a Clairol Shit Stick through your barnet.

In Denmark, fart means fast. In France, preservative is condom. And in doing all this research, I found out that, in Japanese, the word for diarrhoea is geri which is pronounced the same way as the name Gary. (I’m heading to Tokyo later this year, wish me luck.)

I'm also headed to Sweden soon, where I've just learned that the word for finished is slut. So, if you’re ever on the train in Stockholm and find that your next stop says 'slutstation’, fear not, it just means it’s time to get off. (For want of a better phrase.)

So, what’s the takeaway? Same as always, I suppose. Get some experts in your corner.

If you want to get it right all over the globe, Sergeant Walnuts is super caliente to help.