Adapting your tone of voice to make an impact in every market

Adapting your tone of voice to make an impact in every market

When your brand is accessible to consumers across the globe, it can become an overwhelming task to ensure that your marketing comes across as it was intended. Without a translation process, you risk undermining any attempt to instil trust and loyalty between consumers and your brand.

If your brand wants to be truly global, it needs to speak in many languages and adapt to the cultural norms of many different countries.

Brand translation blunders

Relying on literal translations of names and marketing taglines may seem like the most obvious pitfall in a global campaign rollout. But you’d be surprised at just how many brands have fallen victim to some embarrassing marketing faux pas as a result. In no particular order, here are 8 of the biggest mistakes to learn from:

#1 Canned and frozen foods company, The Jolly Green Giant, has been a friendly face in the US and the UK since the 1960s. However, when the brand was translated in Arabic, their beloved mascot inadvertently became the “Intimidating Green Ogre”.

#2 KFC’s long-standing “finger-licking good” tagline became much less appetising when it was directly translated into Chinese as “eat your fingers off”.

#3 In Italy, the quintessentially British gin and tonic didn’t sound so refreshing after a major translation fail by Schweppes… “gin and toilet water” anyone?

#4 Pepsi is another example of a big brand translation blunder. Its tagline, “Pepsi brings you back to life” became terrifyingly literal in Chinese, translating as “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave”.

#5 Parker spelt out the obvious when they tried to tell the Mexican market that their new ballpoint pens “won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you”. By confusing the Spanish for ‘embarrass’ with ‘embarzar’, they ended up reassuring audiences that their pens “won’t leak in your pocket and impregnate you.”

#6 Without a basic knowledge of Portugese Brazilian colloquialisms, Ford made the mistake of launching the Ford Pinto – ‘pinto’ being a local slang term meaning ‘tiny male genitals’.

#7 Coors is another brand that didn’t account for colloquialisms when its slogan, “Turn It Loose,” translated into Spanish as an informal term for having diarrhoea.

#8 Paxam, an Iranian consumer goods company, marketed their laundry soap in English speaking markets using the Farsi word for “snow,” resulting in shelves of packs labelled “Barf Soap.”

Translate the message, not just the words

Despite the numerous examples above, all it takes is a simple check by a native or fluent speaker to avoid an embarrassing, not to mention costly, mistake. However, this doesn’t guarantee that your brand won’t be lost in translation — even if your messaging is correct from a linguistic point of view, it can still fall flat and lifeless as a marketing campaign.

Most often, a basic translation will lack the humour, emotion or catchiness created in the original creative. This highlights the importance of understanding what makes the campaign resonate with local audiences and how to capture it in local dialects. 

We’ve already had a list of brands who have got translation horribly wrong, so to balance things out, here are some success stories:


For years, confectionery brand Haribo has run its undoubtedly catchy jingle with the line ‘Kids and grownups love it so, the happy world of Haribo’. Retaining meaning is one thing, but ensuring that the tagline also hits the right beats in a memorable jingle presents a host of new challenges. Despite this, Haribo has managed to balance consistency and catchiness across numerous markets.

In Germany, for example, where the direct translation sounds odd and clunky alongside the music, the slogan was adapted to “Haribo macht Kinder froh, und Erwachsene ebenso”, meaning “Haribo makes children happy, and grownups too”. Not only does this roll-off the tongue better for German-speaking audiences, but it fits the tune perfectly. This meticulous consistency means that the brand sounds and feels the same wherever its products are being advertised.

Hawes and Curtis

In an article for Marketing Week, Simon Kinsey, Commercial Director at TranslateMedia, shared some insight on the differences between translating brand tone of voice in UK and German markets, using shirt makers, Hawes and Curtis as an example. 

Germans expect greater formality in tone and they value seriousness far more than the Brits. In the UK it’s culturally important not to seem stuffy or over formal, and people are mainly obsessed with dressing in a way that’s appropriate for the occasion”.

These cultural nuances can be seen in the differences between product descriptions for each market. On the company’s German site, the product descriptions highlight ‘precision engineering’ and ‘excellent workmanship’, whereas on the UK site, there is more of a focus on shirts being ‘fashionable’ and ‘effortless’. 

By picking up on these subtle cultural differences between UK and German consumers, Hawes and Curtis are able to address which selling points resonate best for each audience.


Translation isn’t all about copy. Your brand’s visual language also needs to be understood as intended and accommodate local cultural nuances.

For Starbucks launching in Saudi Arabia back in 1992, this meant the iconic Siren was removed from their logo — instead, just her crown remained floating on the waves. The logo has remained the same since, despite the original Siren logo being present in more liberal neighbouring states.

For any brand launching in a new market, it’s important to consider and understand how cultural sensitivities can change the meaning of both written and visual elements of your communications.

Top tips for effective brand translation

Hire a native speaker who is also fluent in marketing

A reliable translator is essential for making sure that your message is understood, and for avoiding any embarrassing miscommunications. But to be sure that your campaign can make an impact, linguistic skills need to be combined with marketing expertise.

Understand cultural nuances 

Relationships between brands and consumers are built on emotional connections. These are best achieved when a campaign is able to tap into culturally relevant insights that resonate with your audience.

Avoid using niche turns of phrase

Colloquialisms are notoriously difficult to translate. For example, using phrases like ‘raining cats and dogs’ might be a common term in the UK but is likely to set your campaign up for confusion in any other market.

Use culturally relevant images

Imagery is its own language and will take on a different meaning in different cultural contexts. What may be striking and powerful in one country, may come across as insulting or insensitive in another. This is where research and local knowledge is invaluable.