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.
The fast-food chain was concerned about the potential for a pig toy to offend Muslims in the country and purposely removed that character from the set, replacing it with a cupid-looking toy in commemoration of St. Valentine’s Day. This was not the first time the company had made an effort to accommodate local religious preferences: it had also worked hard years in advance to obtain halal certification from The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore so that patrons would know the local restaurants did not serve any pork and was approved for consumption by Muslims.
"We excluded the Doraemon "pig" design in the collection with the intention to be sensitive to the Muslim customers,” the fast-food giant said, according to the Associated Press. “It has never been our intention to be disrespectful toward any religion or culture."
Unfortunately, no good deed goes unpunished. In spite of all these efforts to be sensitive to other cultures, McDonald’s had to backpedal when it learned ethnic Chinese customers were offended by the exclusion of this important zodiac symbol. The outcry was forceful enough to make the news, require a change in the promotion and cause McDonald’s to run apology ads.
"We're sorry, and we're grateful," said the ad. "We could never have anticipated how passionate Singapore is about our Doraemon lucky charms and it was never our intention to offend anyone."Comment on this story
In addition to the restaurant’s admirable responsiveness, the other good news in this story is that the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore approved the toy because, in this case, the food itself concerned the organization, not the representation of the animal itself.
Not every company will use animal symbolism correctly every time, but all businesses can do their research and show responsiveness to customer feedback. As the McDonald’s apology ad concisely expressed, “you tell us, we listen.”
Like symbols, images, colors, flowers, idioms and anything else with strong cultural connotations, animal connotations must be researched to avoid embarrassing intercultural marketing gaffes. Then, as in the case of McDonald’s, if the marketing campaign still causes offense, at the least the business can hope customers will see its best intentions.