Cultural epic fails: brands gone wrong, and what brands can learn from KFC, Mercedes Benz and Pepsi (In China)?

Proper localization can save a company millions. Why? Because the cost of offending a group of consumers by sending out insensitive marketing messages can be very expensive and create damage which in some cases may prove permanent, leading to costly efforts in terms of re-positioning.

When it comes to global brands, image and reputation is everything. Regardless of the industry, the company’s size and its direct influence. At their base then, brand messages should transcend language, in order to trigger an emotional response anywhere in the world. This is especially important in China, which has become the second largest economy, and now consumes/produces in a gigantic amount, including increasing amounts of western-made and designed products — and this despite a serious language gap which still exists. Based on a universal image and story, global brands build local narratives. Balancing globalization and localization is not just a matter of linguistic translation. Overcoming the pitfalls in these areas include consideration of lifestyle, values, culture and many more local concerns, both, online and offline.

In the case of global brands entering a new market or organizing a campaign, some of the epic examples of failure that took place in China’s market are in the following:


This might come as a surprise, seeing as KFC is generally known as an extraordinary success story in China. Yet, in the beginning, KFC made Chinese consumers a bit apprehensive when “finger licking good” was translated as “eat your fingers off.”


Mercedes-Benz entered the Chinese market under the brand name “Bensi,” — which means “rush to die.”


Pepsi’s slogan “Pepsi Brings You Back to Life” was debuted in China as “Pepsi Brings You Back from the Grave.”

Localizing brand names into other languages without compromising brand identity is a crucial international marketing challenge for many companies. This becomes more of a problem when brand names need to be localized for languages wherein phonetic and semantic issues pose a challenge.

The most common example is when companies use transliteration strategies to localize their English brand name to a completely different writing system, as in the case of Chinese script. For example, Carrefour chose its Chinese brand name (Jia-le-fu) based on how it sounds (phonetic appeal), and its positive meaning in Chinese: “home/family-happy-fortunate” (家乐福.)

The most famous example of a bad brand name translation into Chinese is that of Coca Cola, when it first entered the China market: The translation of ko-kä-kö-la meant something like ‘bite a wax tadpole(蝌蚪啃蜡).”

To be continued…