Close this search box.

GUEST COMMENT Managing your brand abroad

This is an archived article - we have removed images and other assets but have left the text unchanged for your reference

It can be misleading to think of international branding; perhaps localised branding would be a better way of putting it. For a retail brand to be truly international, it has to appeal to multiple localities. A brand may have been successful in the USA for the past 50 years, but what works in America, may not work as well in France, or Japan. Different localities require unique branding – developed from the same core brand values, but tailored to the local audience.


Language is perhaps one of the simplest areas to tailor, and yet major brands have made dreadfully embarrassing and costly mistakes. If these experiences prove anything, it’s that translation requires more than a neat bit of software; it needs skill and a thorough knowledge of the country being targeted. There really is no excuse for not finding out if your latest product name is viable for the market you are entering.

Brands that have found this out the hard way include Parker Pens – which wanted to tell the Mexican market that its pens wouldn’t leak in their pocket and embarrass them. But by using the word ‘embarazar’ the message became, ‘Parker Pens won’t make you pregnant’, which, I’m sure, many of them already knew! Clairol had to change the name of its curling tongs, the ‘Mist Stick’. After launching the product in Germany, it discovered that Mist meant ‘manure’ in German.

By using transcreation, rather than translation, retail brands can adapt language to specific markets and stay true to the core message of the brand. For example, Nike’s famous ‘Just Do It’ tagline has no meaningful Chinese translation, so Nike opted for the more locally appealing ‘Use Sports’. The TV ads that accompany the campaign are about ‘using sport’ in China. The successful campaign means that China now accounts for 57% of revenue from outside the US.


The idea of marketers considering local pronunciation when they come up with branding sounds like a bit too much work. How does a copywriter sitting in an office in London know how a Spanish villager will pronounce the tag-line he’s just written in English? Usually he won’t know which is why localisation is so important. An experienced translator who doesn’t just speak the language, but understands the culture, slang and current trends, can help brands refine their message or brand image before launching into the new market – saving money and embarrassment.

In 1989 when Plessey Company merged with General Electric, the brand became GPT. This may have been unremarkable for the British market, but in France the pronunciation sounded like ‘J’ai pété, or ‘I’ve farted’. European retail chain, Götzen, was more on the ball. It spotted that in Turkish, göt was a more vulgar term for buttocks. The company saved itself a costly mistake and rebranded as ‘Tekzen’ for the Turkish market.

Cultural norms and values

It’s important to understand what the consumer base values, and how they express these values. For example, quite a few shoe brands have printed Union Jacks and Stars and Stripes on their shoes, but these haven’t provoked a furious backlash. However, when Puma launched trainers in the colours of the UAE flag as a tribute to the UAE’s 40th birthday, UAE nationals reacted furiously –having such an important image associated with footwear was seen as an insult. Puma ended up having to withdraw the range from sale.

It’s not enough to simply translate and trust that people will understand. Successful international retail brands use transcreation – which uses the core messages and values of the brand to create and interpretation of the brand image that will appeal to the local audience. It’s not something you can run through Google Translate. It requires not just expert local knowledge, but marketing, advertising, PR and branding expertise. The retailer has to look and feel like it was created locally (LUSH Cosmetics does this very well with its websites). Native speakers will spot any mistakes in translation or unintentional innuendo and have less trust in the brand. After all, if the brand can’t communicate with them properly, why should they assume the products and services offered would suit their needs?

Ten tips for making your international brand local

1. Chose a brand name that will travel well – if the established name doesn’t translate well, pick another that fits that market.

2. Transcreate rather than translate. There’s no point translating your existing branding if it has no meaning to local customers.

3. Don’t be afraid to adapt the brand to fit the culture.

4. Colours and images can convey hidden meanings. Localise all design content as well as written.

5. Have someone with local knowledge review branding before you launch.

6. Localise ad campaigns by using content, stories and music that will resonate with the audience.

7. Adapt your strap-line if it doesn’t make fit the locality.

8. Be prepared to adapt your marketing style. What appeals to customers in your home territory won’t necessarily have people enticed in another.

9. Consider adapting the product to fit the market. If the customers aren’t interested, it’s not them – it’s you.

10. Don’t cling to your traditional branding – a truly global brand is one that elicits the same response from customers the world over, not one that just has the same tagline the world over.

Patrick Eve is MD of global translations agency, TranslateMedia.

Read More

Register for Newsletter

Group 4 Copy 3Created with Sketch.

Receive 3 newsletters per week

Group 3Created with Sketch.

Gain access to all Top500 research

Group 4Created with Sketch.

Personalise your experience on