By Simon Davies  

Launching your brand abroad is one of the riskiest, yet potentially most rewarding ventures you can make. Whilst the possible gains are significant, recent history is littered with companies that have unsuccessfully exported their business overseas, and a substantial part of their failings have come down to ineffective international branding.

Many of the world’s most successful companies have run botched international campaigns due to poorly translated product names or slogans. Ford became a laughing stock in Brazil after it launched its two-door car the Pinto because ‘pinto’ means ‘tiny male genitals’ in Portuguese. Similarly, the American Dairy Association’s iconic “Got Milk?” catchphrase was translated into Spanish as “Are You Lactating?”.

While these branding mishaps seem funny in retrospect, they can be traumatic if they happen to you. To avoid anything similar, here are our tips to avoiding international branding issues and give your foreign venture the best chance of success.

1. Check your name

One of the largest pitfalls of taking your brand international is having a name that translates badly in a foreign market. Don’t be caught out with a name that has less than PC connotations in other languages. For example, when Mercedes Benz entered the Chinese market, part of their name unfortunately translated to ‘Rush to die’. Not the best name for an automotive company. Similarly, if your brand name is a pun or play on words, make sure it makes sense in the market you are entering. Failure to do so could leave customers alienated.

It is important to check your name carefully to avoid these potentially fatal errors. Don’t rely on computer translations to guide you on this, as they may not be accurate. Instead, contact a translator who is an expert in website localisation, who will be able to assess whether your name is acceptable or not. Branding experts Novanym advise using an invented business name. Aside from standing out from the crowd, invented business names are less likely to have negative connotations when translated.

2. Ensure your logo is suitable

Logos are less obviously prone to mistranslation, but since colours and symbols can have such different meanings to different cultures, it’s still important to make sure your brand logo gives off the right impression in other countries.

In one particularly troublesome example, US crisp brand Fritos had to change their ‘Bandito’ mascot—which traded in racist stereotypes—after repeated complaints from the Mexican community.

Like your name, you should make sure that your logo makes sense to those abroad. And make sure it is not similar to other international brands or you could run the risk of being sued for trademark infringement.The most effective way of ensuring your logo is suitable is to consult a design firm that specialise in international branding. They can then use their knowledge of cultural branding and tell you whether your logo is fit for use or not.

3. Know how the market operates abroad

Don’t assume that your product or service will be received in exactly the same way abroad, as each market has its own nuances—cultural differences can again catch you out. Middle Eastern countries are again a good example of this, as there are much stricter advertising laws for religious reasons, which affect the images and activities that can be used in promotional material.

To prevent mistakes, make sure to do plenty of market research so you know what you are facing, and adapt your business model accordingly. It is beneficial to implement a ‘brand localisation’ strategy to localise your business. You need to clearly define a new customer profile and how your product or service could impact their market. Then take these findings and adjust your branding accordingly.

4. Form a local connection

Building a network in the region you’re looking to expand into is a great way to gain insight. Look to businesses in your chosen location for advice, and form relationships with experts in your market. It has never been easier to do this, with social media allowing you to connect to anybody in an instant. Look at the LinkedIn and Facebook pages of relevant companies and important figures, and get talking. You can also look to your existing network to see if they can help you make these connections.

Not only should you engage with local businesses, but you should also interact with those that have already done what you are planning to do. Being able to learn from their success will be invaluable and ensure you don’t fall into any traps.

Your relationships with these businesses will help you learn the dos and don’ts of branding in your target market, and, with any luck, put you on the path to success.

Simon Davies is a freelance journalist interested in marketing, tech and small business. Follow him at @SimonTheoDavies.