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International Business: Preserving brand strength in global markets by following a few simple steps

Published: Friday, March 11 2011 7:00 a.m. MST

A shortened version of the following article was originally published in a regional business magazine. However, that magazine ironically added large, red, Google mistranslations to the article before printing. The author is grateful that the Deseret News has never done anything of this nature to his articles. The magazine in question would have likewise avoided such a damaging blunder if it had simply followed the tips presented within the article itself, which you can read here.

Marketing managers often laughingly relate how Coca-Cola allegedly committed a huge blunder when entering the Chinese market. Reportedly, its brand name was translated to mean “bite the wax tadpole.” Imagine the implications! Did Chinese consumers wonder if the beverage tasted like wax, tadpoles or pond water? Fortunately for Coca-Cola, this gaffe is merely urban legend.

The online myth debunker Snopes.com explains that before Coca-Cola’s official entry into China, some shopkeepers independently created signs with Chinese characters that sounded like “Coca-Cola” but had nonsensical meanings such as “bite the wax tadpole” and “female horse stuffed with wax.” However, Coca-Cola understood the importance of preserving its brand value in international markets. Before entering China in 1928, the beverage icon took great pains to ensure its brand would not be proverbially lost in translation. Ultimately, the company chose the characters pronounced “K'o K'ou K'o LÊ,” which literally mean, “let the mouth rejoice” or “happiness in the mouth.” This more thoughtful translation definitely helps to preserve the Coca-Cola brand, especially in light of the company’s more contemporary “Open Happiness” campaign.

Successful companies like Coca-Cola work hard to differentiate and position their brands. Coca-Cola preserved its brand strength in Chinese by understanding its brand message, working with skilled professional linguists, conveying that message effectively to the linguists and then maintaining some flexibility when a perfect brand translation was not immediately apparent.

When taking brands global, companies — and specifically marketing managers — must know how to effectively convey their brand messages and any preferences to their language service providers. Otherwise, the translated message could cause significant embarrassment.

Utah-based company preserves its global brand

Aribex is a Utah-based company that understands the importance of preserving its brand message in translation. Aribex efforts in multiple market segments are geared toward being "the worldwide leader in handheld X-ray." The latest models in the company’s NOMAD® product line are sleek, lightweight and uniquely positioned in the market. Product manager Marc Burrows realizes that a handheld device such as the NOMAD can be a terminology challenge when localizing marketing materials.

“Some languages have words in X-ray diagnostics that mean ‘mobile,’ ‘cordless’ or ‘portable,’ but not 'handheld,' " explains Burrows. “The fact that the NOMAD is handheld is a crucial differentiator for Aribex. All larger, traditional X-ray machines are either fixed or mobile. However, none are small, truly portable and — except the NOMAD — able to be operated safely in hand, rather than remotely. For this reason, we cannot settle for approximate translations that do not convey our branding message. If necessary, rather than dilute our brand, we will choose to invent a new hybrid word to convey the correct meaning.”

Communicating preferences effectively

Global marketing managers need to communicate unique linguistic preferences up front to their language service providers (i.e. translation companies) just as successful managers at Coca-Cola and Aribex have done. Waiting to express such preferences after the translation is complete is like waiting to select color preferences after a room has already been painted. Clear communication of linguistic preferences from the beginning will save both time and money.

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