Lost In Translations: When Business Expansion to Asia Goes Horribly Wrong

By the turn of the next decade, Asia is expected to lead the global economy. And businesses all over the world want in. 

Asia is growing richer and richer by the year, and economists saw it coming. As predicted, Asia currently has the highest GDP in purchasing power parity (PPP). By 2030, Asia will dominate the global economy by contributing roughly 60% of global growth. 

But whilst the continent’s economic prospects may seem enticing, one blunder while entering the Asian economy can make your expansion efforts go belly up: cultural insensitivity. 

Generally speaking, when internationally expanding your company or agency, professional language translation services are perfectly fine. In culturally sensitive markets such as Asia however, it’s key to work with a provider which additionally understands not only the linguistic aspects, but also key socio-cultural factors. This is significant as these may directly impact how your messages and communication is actually perceived by your potential audience or clients.

Language Translations are merely an entry point into understanding the culture of your consumer base and hence understanding their wants and needs. 

To drive the point home, let’s look at some real-life examples of businesses failing to expand into Asia due to a lack of social and cultural understanding. 

The 5 Examples of When Business Expansion in Asia Fails 

With all their marketing resources and experts, even the world’s biggest businesses have had no shortages of “what were they thinking” moments when trying to infiltrate a foreign market. Here are some highlights. 

  1. Kurl-On Mattress- ‘Bouncing Back’ From a Terrorist Attack

Two years after it had happened, the news of the assassination attempt on Malala Yousafzai was creating uproar all over the world, specifically in South Asia. People were hurt, shocked, and angry. 

But apparently, the Indian Mattress company Kurl-On didn’t get the memo, nor did Ogilvy, the British marketing agency that Kurl-on hired for their new marketing campaign. They did, however, know that the young activist had received a Nobel Peace Prize that year (2014), and they decided to cash in. 

The advert depicts a caricature of Malala getting shot with a rifle and her bloodied body landing on a Kurl-On mattress. She then “bounces back” from her ordeal to receive a Nobel Peace Prize. 

Considering the target audience for this advert and the global support for Malala, one can only imagine what could have inspired Ogilvy to offend such a large portion of the global population. 

The lesson here is that just because something is trending doesn’t mean you should exploit it, especially if it’s political. Scope out the local sentiments first before you waste away your resources and brand image. 

  • Coors’ Beer— Suffer from Diarrhoea

If there’s an ad campaign that deserves a spot in the mistranslation hall of fame, it’s the one by American beer company Coors. 

The marketing team came up with the creative tagline, “turn it loose.” This phrase means releasing or letting go of your stress and worries in colloquial English.

However, slang doesn’t always translate well between languages. 

Coors didn’t realise this and put out the literal Spanish language translation of the phrase for its Spanish consumers. The result? Scattered across billboards were images of the beloved beer with the phrase “suffer from diarrhoea” accompanying them. This was a classic case of Google Spanish language translations gone hilariously wrong. 

Most Spanish consumers laughed off this mistranslation, and it didn’t ultimately hurt Coors’ sales in Spain. Still, though, Coors never really lived down the accidental association between their drinks and unpleasant bowel movements. 

  • Procter & Gamble Pampers—Where Do Babies Come From?

Sometimes, the problem isn’t so much a language barrier as it is a cultural barrier—case in point: the Pampers packaging, chosen by Procter & Gamble for its Japanese consumers.  

The packaging depicted a stork delivering babies to expecting parents. 

Now, the packaging was innocent enough, with no slurs, mistranslations, or offensive images. The problem was that no one in Japan got the reference. 

You see, the “Storks bring babies to parents” fable is an exclusively Western construct— it doesn’t exist in Japanese folklore. A little research ahead of time would have revealed the Japanese equivalent of this folklore: babies ride atop a giant peach floating down the river. In Japan, giant peaches, not storks, deliver babies. 

This is why it’s essential to hire a professional translation service provider such as one that specialises in Japanese translation services and that knows not only the local language but also the culture, traditions, and folklore. 

  • Dolce And Gabbana— Eating Pizza With Chopsticks 

In 2018, the Italian luxury fashion house, Dolce and Gabbana, became entangled in an international marketing disaster. The brand released a very distasteful advert depicting a young, ditzy Chinese woman attempting to eat pizza—an Italian dish— with chopsticks— a Chinese utensil. Her efforts were unsuccessful as a patronising male voice-over attempts to instruct her on the “proper” way to eat pizza. 

The intention here could have been to associate the brand with its Italian heritage. Or, in a more malicious vein, it could have been to make Dolce and Gabbana consumers feel more superior and exclusive. 

Regardless of the intent, the execution was terrible. The advert crossed many lines, from reinforcing racial and gender stereotypes to implying that all non-westerners are backwards, inferior, and unaware of western luxury brands. 

Following this debacle, Chinese customers threatened to boycott the brand. The advert was denounced, events and shows were cancelled, and even the Chinese government disapproved. The actress herself revealed how uncomfortable she felt on set. 

Up until this mishap, China was actually one of the brand’s largest markets. But four years later, Dolce and Gabbana is still struggling to win back its Chinese audience. They have issued countless apologies on the matter, but the damage was already done. 

  • BMW— Expensive Cars Trump Patriotism

The UAE is home to some of the richest people on the planet. So, it would make sense for the German luxury cars manufacturer BMW to try to appeal to this rampant materialism through an advert targeted to Emiratis. 

The advert depicted the Al Ain Football Club passionately singing the UAE national anthem. However, upon hearing the unmistakable sound of a BMW engine, they forget all about their national pride and flock towards the car. 

Understandably, Emiratis took deep offence to the blatant disrespect towards their national anthem. The idea was commendable: redirecting passion towards the brand’s luxury cars. However, the execution went wrong because marketers underestimated the national pride and patriotism that is equally as rampant as their love for luxurious things. 


Asia is a vast continent with diverse ethnicities, races, and cultures. But finding an entry point into this promising market isn’t easy. It requires a deep and thorough understanding of your target market’s culture and traditions. 

The best way to understand these cultures and traditions is by recruiting a professional translation agency. This will help you avoid mistranslations, make your ad campaigns more resonant with local culture, and establish a strong brand image. 

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