Translating, interpreting, dubbing and other language services are just one aspect of your outreach to international markets. Whether you are a part of a startup or a well-established company, and whether your firm is large or small, firms of all sizes have made major gaffes in their global marketing approaches. The key is to make sure these do not happen to you.

The Message and the Messenger

Celebrity endorsers have long been a powerful tool in the marketing mix, but only when correctly done. January in the United States marks the start of the entertainment awards season (Golden Globes, Oscars, etc.). Celebrities will be promoting their films as well as their pet causes. Every aspect of their lives is captured on the screen, in magazines and most importantly online. No wonder that successful companies latch onto stars to open new markets and create broad appeal to larger audiences. But it behooves companies to examine the public positions of celebrities prior to engaging them.

Marketers in their creative zeal sometimes forget that the messenger is just as important as the message. What is said and how it is communicated are critical to a brand’s ability to curry favor (plus sales) in foreign markets. Making sure to add a pinch of cultural sensitivity and to understand the target country’s domestic political conditions can go a long way in creating successful marketing campaigns. Three great brands highlight this point. Just like preparing for a trip, savvy marketers will check the contents of their “baggage” to make sure that nothing detracts from the message they want their customers to receive.
Fiat: Marketing in the Wrong Gere

Italian carmaker Fiat managed to anger 1 billion people with a commercial that didn’t even run in China. How could Fiat achieve such a feat of marketing incompetence? Very simply. It chose the wrong messenger! Fiat ran an ad campaign in Italy that featured actor Richard Gere driving a Lancia Delta from Hollywood to Tibet. This happened in less than 30 seconds. Quite impressive driving!  But Mr. Gere is an outspoken supporter of Tibetan freedom and the Dalai Lama, positions totally opposed by the Mainland government that considers Tibet an integral part of China. A television spot run half-a-world away quickly became a top story in the Chinese press. China’s people went online to view the ad and vent their anger. After watching the video, many Chinese said that they would never buy a Fiat. Ultimately, Fiat issued an apology to the Chinese government and its people. [watch commercial]
Groupon: Too much exposure
Chicago-based Groupon is the “godfather” of the daily deal websites in the US. Its snappy prose and heavily discounted deals have been like honey to consumers looking to save a few bucks during the “Great Recession”. But Groupon’s quirky personality was laid bare to a global audience of billions during last year’s US football Super Bowl. It too chose to use Tibet as a marketing tool. The commercial began with a narration by actor Timothy Hutton saying, “The people of Tibet are in trouble, their very culture is in jeopardy.” Images of Tibet, its people and temples fill the screen. We are then transported to a Tibetan restaurant in Chicago where Timothy orders up a fantastic fish curry. According to National Public Radio (NPR), one tweet summed up the response nicely:  Groupon seems to have achieved the unique feat of paying $3 million to lose customers who previously loved them. The response in China was just as negative as in the United States. Quite an innovative way to access a market of 1 billion people. [watch commercial]
Nokia: Your what phone?
In Autumn 2011 Nokia released Lumia, its much anticipated smart phone.  The name seems both creative and harmless. However for customers living in Spanish-speaking countries, it meant something quite different. “Lumia” means “prostitute” in Spanish slang.  It’s a linguistic derivative from Gypsy/Roma influences on the Spanish language. If you’re a pimp in Latin America, there really isn’t a problem. However, if you’re one of the other 500 million people who live there, marketing such a device will most definitely present a challenge. For more examples of why prior screening of any product or brand names is critical, please see our previous newsletter [Product and Brand Naming]. After all, why jeopardize future international success even when you don’t know how global your product might become?


Marketing to the world’s people is quite a challenge. Celebrities, brand names and advertising that may work in one country may not prove as effective in another. Successful marketers must have a deep knowledge of their craft, but they also need a thorough understanding of the cultural, political, symbolic and linguistic distinctions that make each country unique. Your enterprise may be small, medium or multinational. And you may be able to afford celebrities, a part-time overseas rep or only a simple brochure. But a small investment in global marketing consultants — targeted to your industry, product and countries – is a very minor expense upfront to save you from potential humiliation and wasted resources. Like insurance, what is protecting your investment worth?