Cultural marketing mistakes

Cultural marketing mistakes

Seven costly mishaps by the world’s largest corporations.

We’ve all had this experience: we venture outside our cultural bubble, and suddenly we’re not the exceptional communicators we thought we were. We tell a joke that falls flat. We make references we thought were universal. We use body language that baffles those around us. We tend to believe that our own humour, beliefs and customs are the norm, and often don’t realise our biases until they are laid out for us. The world’s top corporate marketing professionals are no exception; they have, in their campaigns, made very public and costly cultural assumptions.

Here are seven cultural marketing mistakes from corporations who should have known better:

Procter & Gamble

Procter and Gamble expanded the sale of Pampers diapers to the Japanese market and were baffled by the dismal sales. After some investigation, the company realised that the logo had been a source of real miscommunication—in Japan, there is no folklore about storks delivering babies. Instead, the Japanese tale describes an ethereal floating peach bringing babies to families. New Japanese mothers were confused and turned off by the image of a wild, wetland animal carrying a baby.


Nike was gearing up for a big summer of sales as four new shoe models hit the market: the “Air Bakin’”, the “Air Melt”, the “Air Grill”, and the “Air B-Que”. Instead of cashing in on the new products, however, Nike was forced to recall thousands of pairs when Muslim consumers noticed that the fire logo on the back of the shoes resembled the Arabic script for “Allah”. Consumers were outraged over the design. Nike was forced to halt all future sales in order to avoid an international brand boycott.


Pepsi enjoyed a dominant market share in East Asia for decades. That is, until the company decided to update the brand image by replacing its deep royal blue vending machines with light blue ones. In East Asia, light blue is associated with death and mourning– not exactly a topic customers want to consider whilst enjoying their soft drink. The new colour drove a significant portion of Pepsi drinkers to Coca Cola, a consumer base that Pepsi has never been able to fully recover.


UPS opened operations in Germany with its iconic brown trucks and brown uniforms. Immediately, customers began to comment that the uniforms were reminiscent of the Nazi Party’s Brown Shirts. UPS had to swap out all uniforms issued across the country. Later, when the company expanded to Spain, it had to change the colour of its trucks because of their resemblance to local hearses.


When Disney decided to expand its theme parks to Europe, it used its US blueprint and business plan to build EuroDisney in France. Sales fell far below expectations. After some research, experts concluded that Disney had failed to consider important differences in French aesthetic preferences and customs—the tacky, over-the-top, American-themed rides and decorations did not suit French tastes, and neither did the dining options. French custom is to enjoy leisurely meals complete with wine and beer, and with the plethora of fast food joints and lack of fine dining establishments, there were not enough adequate options to meet the demand.

McDonald’s and Coca-Cola

McDonald’s and Coca-Cola teamed up to launch a promotional campaign for the 1994 World Cup. They decorated collectible pins, aluminium cans and takeaway hamburger boxes with the flags of every qualifying country. Muslims around the world were furious to see the Saudi Arabian flag, which contains a holy verse from the Shahada, depicted on commercial, disposable items. In response to the international outrage, the companies had to issue a global recall of the products along with an official apology.


Over the 2016 Christmas holidays, Netflix promoted its upcoming season of “Narcos” in Puerta del Sol square in Madrid with a billboard that read “Oh, blanca Navidad”. This reference to cocaine loomed over the city’s Christmas light displays and other popular family attractions. Angry citizens took to Twitter, shaming Netflix for glorifying a “drug dealer” and “assassin” in such a family-centred public place, especially during religious festivities. The PR disaster got so large that Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos requested the advert be immediately removed, as it was damaging the reputation the country had fought to improve.

Culturally based marketing mistakes are expensive and can damage a brand’s image. Luckily, these types of blunders are avoidable. By turning to the emerging field of transcreation, many corporations have been able to run wildly successful cross-cultural marketing campaigns. The right transcreation team can work with your company can develop a localised marketing strategy that will resonate with your target audience and take your new market by storm.

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