How NOT to Succeed at International Marketing

So you’re thinking about growing your company by expanding overseas. After all, over 50% of iPhones are sold in Japan, almost 30% of Louis Vuiton Moët Hennessy’s sales come from Asia, and Dunkin Donuts has more than 3,000 stores outside of the US.

But going international has its risks. Case in point: Electrolux.

When Swedish company Electrolux introduced its vacuums to the American market, its marketing department developed what it thought was the perfect slogan for English speakers:

For obvious reasons, this did not go over well with potential customers. Not quite the connotation they were going for.

When American companies begin selling their products overseas, similar issues often arise. At best, this can result in lackluster results. At worst, it can damage the company’s reputation, both overseas and back home. 

Watch Your Language

Some of the biggest gaffes that companies have encountered while going international have involved mistranslations. For example, when Ford expanded into Belgium, its translated ads that intended to tout every car as having a high-quality body actually read “every car has a high-quality corpse.” KFC made a similar mistake when entering the Chinese market, with its “finger lickin’ good” slogan accidentally translated as “good to eat your fingers off.” Although these companies did recover (with KFC eventually becoming the most popular restaurant in China), these mistakes could have shattered the image that they were trying to build with their consumers.

A Matter of Culture

In other cases, the issue was not one of language, but one of cultural knowledge. 

For example, Pepsodent’s foray into the Asian market was considerably underwhelming at first. Their marketing materials focused on how the company’s products would whiten teeth. Unfortunately for them, consumers in many Asian regions actually view dark teeth as attractive, going so far as to chew betel nuts in order to darken their teeth. 

Similarly, when Pampers started marketing its products in Japan, the image of a stork carrying a baby baffled many of their potential customers. Japanese folklore does not include any stories about babies being carried by storks; instead, they have a story of a young boy named Momotaro who emerged from a giant peach, and another about a girl named Kaguya who was found inside a glowing stick of bamboo. In this case, Pampers needed to localize not just their marketing materials, but also their packaging, in order to succeed in this new market.

While some mistakes can simply confuse potential customers, others can actually offend them. BMW put out a commercial in the UAE portraying people solemnly listening to the country’s national anthem… and then suddenly turning away and running towards a line of BMWs after they hear the sound of a revving engine. The commercial was replaced soon afterwards due to its offensiveness towards the country’s patriotic base.

Nike, on the other hand, successfully broke into the European market by embracing cultural differences. It endorsed popular international athletes like Ilie Nastase, a Romanian tennis player, as well as focusing on sports like cricket, soccer (or football, to Europeans), and golf, which were strongly preferred in its target markets.

Local Tastes

Neglecting to do their research on local preferences is a major factor in why many companies fail to transition to the international market. Even industry behemoth Starbucks, which usually excels at taking its customers’ preferences into account, dive-bombed when it came to entering the Israeli market. Starbucks founder Howard Schultz tasted one tasteless cup of coffee from his hotel’s room service on his first visit to Israel, and assumed that Israelis would clamor for his superior blends and the coffee culture he had built in America.

Unfortunately for him, that one bad cup of coffee was just that – one bad cup of coffee. Israelis had long embraced a coffee culture that featured mostly strong Turkish coffee, and they therefore viewed American coffees as slightly flavored water. Because Schultz misread the market, Starbucks failed to make the changes that they needed in order to appeal to Israeli consumers.

Successful companies, on the other hand, make sure to do their homework and incorporate local tastes into their product lines. That’s why Dunkin Donuts offers dried pork and seaweed sprinkled donuts on its menu in Japan, but swaps them for mango-chocolate donuts in its Lebanese restaurants. Domino’s has a similar technique, offering seafood pizza toppings in some parts of Asia and curry-flavored toppings in its Indian stores.

How to Successfully Enter the International Market

But what does all of this mean for your company if you’re considering taking it internationally? Approach this change carefully and make sure that you are fully prepared before rolling out your first products onto foreign soil. Most importantly…

  1. Do your homework. Look into the culture and expectations of the country you will be targeting.
  2. Invest in translation. It’s worth the extra cost to ensure that your marketing materials are professional and don’t make you a laughingstock. Avoid idioms, jargon, and regional diction as much as possible. And please, don’t even consider Google Translate.
  3. Localize your content. Rather than just translating content directly, make sure that your message will resonate with each segment of your target market. That often means making sure to communicate nuance, which can be difficult unless you…
  4. Have insiders on your team. If you belong to any niche ethnic group, you know exactly what I mean. Find trustworthy individuals who are actually part of your target market, and run any newly translated materials by them before rollout.
  5. Consider your medium of communication. Different countries have different media preferences as well. For example, your social media post will bomb in some countries if you only post it on Facebook. In some locations, a tweet is the only way to communicate; in others, platforms like WeChat may be most popular (although they are practically unknown in the US).
  6. Pay attention to detail. Ask plenty of questions when you are creating content, since the slightest nuances can drastically affect your message. For example, Pepsi’s Asia sales fell when they changed their vending machines from dark blue to light blue, since some Asian cultures associate the light blue color with death and dying.
  7. Market by region, not just by country. Make sure marketing makes sense for each specific region. For example, when Indian phone company Bharti Airtel tried to market their products across Africa, they used South African actors and coins in their commercials. Because many of the 17 African countries use paper money, these ads didn’t resonate with those consumers.

In short, if your company is ready to go international, proceed with caution. And if you do make a mistake? Address the issue honestly and directly. After all, every culture in the world – including the one you’re marketing to – will value a company that retains its integrity and responsibility, no matter what.