Cultural Differences: Taking Translation to the Next Level

Every company has heard stories about poorly done translations. When frozen vegetable brand Green Giant debuted in Arabic-speaking nations, the company was stunned by poor sales—until it learned the name of its beloved mascot had been translated as “Intimidating Green Ogre”!

But, beyond mistranslations, literal-to-figurative blunders, and attempts to make brand names sound the same in other languages, it’s also crucial for businesses to consider more subtle cultural differences when designing a global campaign.


How do other cultures relay information? It seems like a simple question, but it can get companies in big trouble. When Nestle began selling baby food in Africa, for example, the company saw no reason to change the familiar “Gerber baby” face that appears on every bottle. But there was a problem: since literacy rates in much of Africa remain low and the number of languages spoken is so high, it’s common practice to put a picture of what’s inside a container on the outside for easy reference. As a result, Gerber’s sales were dismal. The bottom line? How a culture communicates goes beyond language.


As noted by Business Spotlight, different cultures place importance on specific personality traits or characteristics, and consumers often look for personification of these traits in brand advertising. A German butter manufacturer’s global campaign of “competence through butter” didn’t make waves internationally, confounding local marketers. The reason? Although competence is a key value in German culture, many other parts of the world consider it a given, rather than an accolade.

In Latin America, meanwhile, charisma in political and business leaders is highly sought after—products that don’t demonstrate this characteristic are in for an uphill battle. And in Saudi Arabia, women are not usually featured in product catalogs. Many North American companies wouldn’t think twice about using women in ad campaigns, but this cultural difference could see products boycotted or even banned from sale.


Consumers in different countries like to complete transactions in different ways. Data from Accenture found that in South Korea, 96 percent of new car buyers wanted to research, negotiate, and purchase their vehicle entirely online, but in the United States, only 37 percent have done the same. As a result, it may be necessary to effectively translate your entire website—everything from marketing information to an e-Commerce store—to accommodate local preferences.

The right words and images can draw in global consumers, but respect for deep-seated cultural differences turns prospective buyers into brand-loyal customers.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

About Doug Bonderud

Doug Bonderud is a freelance technology writer with a passion for telling great stories about unique brands. For the past five years, he's covered everything from cloud computing to home automation and IT security. He speaks some French, is fluent in Ancient Greek and a master of Canadian English — and yes, colour needs a 'u'.