Lost in translation: brand perception in international markets

Lost in translation: brand perception in international markets

Article | Last updated: 23 January 2019

The internet has delivered a potential global audience to every business. However, the issue facing enterprises that want to tap into these international markets is how to ensure their brand communications, products and services are attractive to their target customers.

Global brands have understood for decades that they must localise their products or services for each region. What’s more, as branding has become a vital component of the customer relationship, how each brand communicates its values to different cultures is now more important to get right than at any time in the past.

It’s vital to understand how your branding is perceived in all the markets your business wants to trade within. The localisation of the customer’s experience is a critical component of marketing today. Get this right, and your target groups and regions will embrace your business. However, getting your branding wrong could lead to ridicule, low ROI and diminishing market share.

One size does not fit all

The localisation of your brand will require a deep understanding of each component of your brand and how these speak to their target audience.


Localisation of language may seem a simple exercise in translation, but nothing could be further from the truth: When Marathon chocolate bars were renamed in the UK as ‘Snickers’, this sounded too much like ‘sniggers’ which has negative connotations in the UK. However, the word doesn’t carry the same cultural reference in the USA.

The infamous ‘Got Milk’ campaign didn’t work as planned in any Latino countries as the phrase translates as ‘are you lactating?’ Brand names such as the detergent ‘Barf’ meaning ‘snow’ in Farsi making the brand popular in the Middle East, but the word clearly doesn’t have the same meaning to English-speaking countries where ‘barf’ has a very different meaning.  Also, the Mexican bakery Bimbo isn’t associated with wholesome foodstuffs in the UK and USA!

Numbers can also be highly problematic if cultural references are not appreciated and understood. The number four is considered bad luck in Japan and China as the word sounds like ‘death’ in these languages. The number 13 is often associated with bad luck in the West. For Italians, the number 17 is very unlucky. Whereas, the word for eight is considered lucky in China, Japan, and Vietnam, yet unlucky in India.


Adapting your business for localisation while referencing and supporting regional culture can be tricky. You could approach this scientifically using the Hofstede’s Model of Culture. However, using the specialist knowledge of local experts is much more effective, as gives your business access to an appreciation of how your brand needs to be managed in specific countries, or even regions within a single country.

For instance, when the Swedish company Electrolux launched in the USA, it’s slogan ‘Nothing sucks like an Electrolux’ was a clear failure to understand the cultural reference that the word ‘suck’ had across America. When Gap launched their 1969 brand of jeans, that date has positive associations for Americans, yet the year in China is associated with the devastating Cultural Revolution.

When Proctor & Gamble wanted to start selling their Pampers brand in Japan, they didn’t research whether their marketing imagery of a stork delivering a baby would have the same impact it had in the USA. Indeed, the campaign failed, as there are no references to storks delivering babies in Japanese folklore.


For brands, colour can be highly emotive and forms a critical component of their brand value communications. Care, though, must be taken when localisation is concerned. The phone network Orange had to make significant changes when entering the market in Ireland, as orange has strong political and religious links.

The colour red in the West is associated with passion and love. When combined with green, anyone in North America or Europe thinks of Christmas. Whereas, in the Middle East, red stands for danger and is associated with evil. Yellow in the West linked with nature and the warmth of the sun. In Latin America however, yellow is the colour of death and mourning.

Blue is the world’s most popular colour for brand logos as in the West, blue means trust. Indeed, around the world blue has almost universal positive connotations and is often linked to religion.

Green in Latin America is associated with death, but in the rest of the world, it means nature or in the USA, money. Green is also often linked to the military. Pink often associated with femininity in Asian, Eastern and Western cultures has no specific meaning in the Middle East.


The visual language your business and brand uses can speak volumes. In the West images of individuals in the workplace or home are common. However, in China, for instance, images of groups or families are much more attractive and persuasive, as there is a cultural shift between these regions.

Images on websites that support personalisation are more potent in the USA, UK or Australia than they are in Korea where stronger collective images should be used. Images and colour are also closely associated. Take care to ensure that any background colour to an image doesn’t have a specific cultural reference.

If you use graphics across your website, research what these mean in different cultures. The owl might say wisdom to someone in the UK, but in India, it means bad luck.

Taking time to understand the different cultural associations with colour, image, and language, will ensure your business can localise its customer experience and make powerful connections with new global customers

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