International Business: Marketers beware of using animals in international campaigns

Published: Friday, Sept. 23 2011 7:00 a.m. MDT

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Are you considering the use of animals for your international business logo or the company website? Are you considering animal imagery for use in a global marketing campaign? If so, you might want to reconsider, as animals can have very different — and often undesirable — connotations in other countries and cultures.

“A marketer of eyeglasses promoted his spectacles in Thailand using commercials that featured animals wearing glasses,” said David A. Ricks in his book "Blunders in International Business." “This was an unfortunate decision, however, since animals there are considered a low life form, and it is beneath humans to wear anything worn by an animal.”

In marketing, e-learning, software and other aspects of business, we know users and clients expect to be presented with pleasing products and images and not with mountains of boring text. Images of animals may be among those that we wish to use, but, as mentioned in a previous column, animal symbols can be dangerous. As a reminder example, owls symbolize wisdom in the United States but represent stupidity in some parts of Asia.

Some animal blunders occur when advertisers use animals or animal products that are considered “unclean” according to local religious beliefs. Ricks gives another example of a print advertisement for men’s cologne that depicted a man and his dog in a rural setting. The ad succeeded in the United States, but not in northern Africa, where Muslims consider “dogs to be either signs of bad luck or symbols of uncleanliness.”

Similarly, reports Ricks, an appliance manufacturer’s ad showing a large ham on the center shelf of a refrigerator flopped in the Middle East, where Muslims do not eat pork. Religious dietary restrictions such as these should not be taken lightly — insensitivity to the Muslim prohibition against pork is said to have helped incite an Indian rebellion against the British in 1857.

“Like any set of symbols, (animal symbols) need to be managed carefully,” says cultural expert Kate Edwards in Multilingual magazine’s August 2011 article, “Animal Symbolism.” “In an increasingly interconnected world, we have to remain diligent in choosing our symbols wisely with the utmost care.”

Knowing the connotations of different animals in different cultures is a good start but is not a foolproof way to avoid all animal-related marketing misunderstandings. In 2009, for example, Germany-based electronics retailer Media Markt tried to catch the attention of Turkish customers with billboard ads depicting animal-headed humans. According to Turkey’s HÜrriyet Daily News, the ads asked consumers if they were “fool enough” to pay too much for a certain product and “featured a goose, a cow, a carp and a sheep, each chosen for its implication of foolishness.” Unfortunately, many felt the ads were a general insult to all Turkish people, and the ads were consequently banned.

Using animals appropriately in marketing can be particularly difficult when advertising in a country in which two cultures have opposing views on the topic. In preparation for the 2010 Chinese New Year, the chosen toy promotion for McDonald’s in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore was a 12-piece set of plush toys featuring the Doraemon character (from a popular Japanese manga series) dressed up as different animals, each to represent an animal in the Chinese calendar. In addition to being a marketing effort for McDonalds, the promotion was also a fundraiser for charity, with net proceeds going to the Ronald McDonald Children’s Charity.

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