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International Business: Marketers beware of using international flags in campaigns

Published: Friday, Aug. 5 2011 7:00 a.m. MDT

Marketers know global consumers can feel great pride in their flags, and tapping into that patriotism can significantly benefit brands. However, misuse of flags in marketing campaigns can have disastrous and costly consequences.

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When Canadian-owned Dow Brewery Limited attempted to invoke strong regional pride with a new brand of beer targeted at Quebec in 1963, the reaction was even stronger than anticipated. Unfortunately, the regional pride the company had hoped would boost sales led to a boycott of the product and discontinuance of the campaign.

The new product was named "Kebec," and the packaging resembled the province's blue and white flag, known as the Fleurdelise. However, some Quebecois objected to seeing their precious flag covering commercial alcohol packaging. Le Rassemblement pour l'Independence Nationale, an organization with so much Quebec pride it hoped for independence from Canada, called for a boycott of all Dow Brewery products, with the Ottawa Citizen reporting that Le Rassemblement called the new beer label "the worst insult ever perpetrated by the Toronto capitalists."

Dow Brewery defended itself, saying that the brand was created with only the best of intentions by Quebec management, most of whom were French-speaking Canadians. Although the company insisted it received more compliments than complaints on the product, it nonetheless soon agreed to discontinue use of any design resembling the flag on its trucks, packaging and advertising.

Marketers know consumers often feel an enormous respect toward their national or regional flags, and tapping into that patriotism appropriately can benefit a brand's image and sales. However, flags also carry with them a certain code of conduct for proper use and display. Flag customs and requirements are not the same from country to country, and committing a faux pas in this area will arouse strong objections that can seriously damage a brand. International marketers must be extra careful with flag symbolism to avoid offending what is often seen as almost sacred.

In 1994, Coca-Cola and McDonald's felt the fury of angry Muslims when the companies unknowingly tread into sacred and religious territory. To commemorate that year's World Cup, both companies printed flags of participating World Cup teams on disposable packaging. Among these flags was the flag of Saudi Arabia, which contains Arabic script from the Koran believed to be sacred. "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet," reads a translation. Coca-Cola printed the image on 270 million cans, and McDonald's printed it on 2 million Happy Meals.

"As the Saudi flag contains the Muslim Shahada (declaration of faith), the Saudi government never allows its use for commercial or promotional activities, or in any way that is not consistent with the respect due the Shahada," the Saudi Arabian embassy in London said in a statement.

This was not the first time McDonald's had run into trouble for marketing with a national flag. With the intention of commemorating Mexico's Día de la Bandera, Flag Day, a pair of McDonald's restaurants in Mexico City distributed napkins and placemats bearing images of the Mexican flag. Considering how frequently the U.S. flag was used in various commercial marketing campaigns in the 1980s, one might easily imagine how the restaurant giant assumed this would also be welcomed in other countries. However, after complaints against McDonald's, government agents confiscated the offending paperware to prevent anyone else from dripping ketchup on a symbol of national pride.

Not only respect but also antagonism for a flag can make its use dangerous in advertising. For example, the U.S. Postal Service once had to remove brochures from 11,900 post offices when they contained an image of the communist Vietnamese flag to indicate text in Vietnamese. Vietnamese-American immigrants who had fled the oppressive and murderous communist regime were naturally upset. According to the Associated Press, Hung Quoc Pham, president of the Vietnamese American Community of Northern California, called the use of the communist symbol "a disgrace" and "similar to raising a Nazi flag to the Jews."

"I think it was the biggest marketing blunder ever," said San Jose, Calif., Councilman Chuck Reed to the AP. "If you're trying to get Vietnamese-American customers to use your service, you don't use a communist flag."

Even in traditional flag displays, sometimes people will use them incorrectly or even display the wrong flags. Americans, Canadians, Mexicans and others have been embarrassed and offended when some have unintentionally flown flags upside down at sporting events. Many have angrily demanded official apologies. In contrast, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III and his government showed great class in 2010 when the United States accidentally flew his country's flag upside down at a news conference with U.S. President Barack Obama.

"We are satisfied that they recognized it was an honest mistake. What's important (is) our relations continue to be friendly," said presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda, according to the Manila Bulletin. "What we realized is these things happen. This thing not only happened to us, it has also happened previously to other countries' (flags). What's important, it was a mistake (and) they recognized it was an honest mistake, and therefore we move on."

With so many ways in which companies might accidentally harm brands or offend customers with the wrong images, symbols or colors, we must recognize the potential faux pas to avoid repeating them. However, when all is said and done, we must then do as Lacierda said: own up to honest mistakes and "move on."

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at BYU. E-mail: awooten@lingotek.com . Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten..

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