Cultural Fail: Our New Product Means WHAT??!

What happens when you’re about to introduce a new product to an emerging market, only to realize its name has a distasteful connotation that’s bound to make potential buyers red with embarrassment?

If you’re Ikea, you hire a bunch of translators, of course. (Or risk downright insulting an entire country.)

Such is the problem with brand and product names with risqué double entendres — and it certainly isn’t a new challenge for global organizations. When they fail to do their due diligence before entering new or emerging markets, what often follows is a gauche cultural oops. Some — like Ikea — are fortunate enough to catch the gaffe pre-launch thanks to painstaking research, but others are forced to learn the hard way. Here are some more examples:

•    Kraft: The food and beverage giant named its global snack foods brand “Mondelez,” which is similar to the term for oral sex in Russian. Even after the blush-worthy meaning came to light, the name was upheld.

•    Ikea: The furniture giant modified the name of one of its beds before launching a superstore in Thailand. The name: “Redalen,” which sounds like getting to third base in Thai.

•    Sharwood: The British food company produced a curry sauce named “Bundh,” which opened the floodgates for complaints that it sounds like “rear end” in Punjabi.

•    Microsoft: The increasingly popular search engine Bing sounds a lot like “illness” or “pancake” in local Chinese dialects, which is why the company tweaked it slightly.

•    General Motors: “LaCrosse,” it turns out, is slang for masturbation in Quebec, causing the auto giant to change the name of one of its products in Canada.

•    Vicks: The popular cold medication’s name sounds like a term for sex in German, so be sure to ask for “Wicks” instead if you’re looking for cough drops in that country.

Hiring a bunch of translators is certainly a part of solving this dilemma, but it doesn’t really help if, say, you introduce a Barbie doll to the Chinese market. Part of the problem there is that the Chinese prefer dolls that are cute — such as Hello Kitty — rather than sexy ones.

To dodge such cultural missteps and prevent missed business opportunities, the key is to empower and train all employees to be culturally competent — whether it’s an organization with global reach or a domestic one with a diverse employee population.

In a recent Diversity Executive article, Neal Goodman writes: “Exposure to new cultures and to multicultural social networks and teams is more likely to have positive consequences if those involved have been properly trained to understand and appreciate fundamental cultural differences and values that impact workplace relationships.”

Not only will this enhance the dynamics and productivity of diverse teams, but it might also keep you from appearing in the Wall Street Journal as an example of what NOT to do.