International Business: Marketers beware of using animals in international campaigns

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

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."

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.

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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