language translation spooky jack-o-lanternJack-o-lanterns lit up on doorsteps . . . candy on sale at every store . . . and scary movies playing on almost every television channel. Yep, it’s that time of year. It’s Halloween: A holiday where it’s perfectly acceptable to dress up in ridiculous costumes and run about town ringing doorbells for sweets and spooks.

But when you make translation mistakes like the ones we’ve seen in the news, you may want to wear a disguise for other reasons than to go trick-or-treating.

From offensive and racy word choices to an unfortunate company mascot name, let’s discuss some language translation slip-ups from big brands that are in dire need of a good Halloween costume—and most importantly, how you can avoid making the same types of localization errors.

The scary costume that was all too real

When Vitaminwater (a Coca-Cola brand) played around with language translation for their latest promotion in Canada, things got horror-movie-scary very quickly.

Playing on Canada’s bilingual culture, their caps featured one word in English and one in French. The idea was to have customers combine these caps to form funny phrases and win prizes. What was supposed to be light-hearted, laughable confusion went dark and scary when a customer opened her water to read “You retard.” In French, “retard” means late or delay.

Even more unfortunate, this customer had a sister with a mental handicap. She took her outrage public, and it became a living nightmare for the company.

Coca-Cola apologized profusely to the family and its customers, saying that they didn’t mean to offend anyone. According to Coke, the word combinations showed up randomly, and the internal teams overlooked the mistake in their review.

This goes to show that even the most seasoned brands with sophisticated localization strategies can feel the sharp pain of a language translation error. Seemingly harmless word choices in one language can come back to haunt you in another. This is especially important when you’re juggling multiple languages, and why it’s crucial that you work with a language service provider with quality controls in place.

The trendy costume that wasn’t on target

Fukushima Industries, the Osaka-based refrigerator maker, experienced major scrutiny when they named their new mascot “Fukuppy,” combining the company name with the English word, happy.

We’ve all seen the costumes that play on the latest jokes in pop culture or politics. In Japan it’s trendy for companies to incorporate English words into their company and product names. But this one missed the mark—turning heads in the wrong direction.

While they took the name to portray their philosophy of being a happiness-creating company, others sneered that it referenced recent mishandlings at the nearby Fukushima nuclear plant. Given the situation and that the mascot name sounds just like an inappropriate word in the English language—you can imagine the jokes.

This is another important lesson in combining different languages and how two separate words are harmless but can spook up quite a commotion when combined.

The sexy costume that left nothing to the imagination

When expanding its products to culturally conservative Thailand, Ikea experienced major backlash after revealing their Redalen bed. Turns out the word “redalen” sounds a lot like Thailand’s word for sex, and it came across as rude and offensive to locals.

In this case, sex didn’t sell. So the company had to do something about it.

Ikea chose to forego language translation, keeping product names in their source language because tongue-tying Scandinavian product names are part of their iconic brand. To avoid issues like this going forward, they began working with in-country employees to police pronunciations. Today, if any name can be misconstrued or has a negative connotation, it is changed.

This strategy is going to become even more important—and challenging—as they continue to expand globally and enter markets with unique languages and cultural nuances. However, with the guidance of their local employees, they should be able to maintain their brand personality in new markets while avoiding any future discrepancies.

The masks come off

It all boils down to this: Whether it’s a product name or an international marketing campaign, it is absolutely vital that the copy resonates with your target audience. You don’t want to turn off any potential customers or give the wrong impression.

Each of these companies could have benefited from a final review of creative content. In-country, native-speaking employees or other locals could have looked at these word choices and dressed them up appropriately right from the beginning.

Beyond a review, when you need to strike a chord with local audiences, you can look to many other effective marketing localization strategies. Check out our best practice brief on transcreation and how recreating your copy for other languages can give your campaigns the local flavor you crave—setting you up for global marketing success.

If you don’t have the resources to do this internally, partner with Sajan. We can help you with all your language translation needs so you don’t end up making mistakes that make you want to stay in costume all year round—because after Halloween it’s just weird.