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Why do Marketing Translations go Wrong

By Josian Phillips, 

Producing a bad translation of marketing content can be disastrous. Inadequate translation can make a company look foolish and have a very negative effect on their brand. Cultural offence is easily caused by poor choice of language and lack of localisation. Let’s take a look at why marketing translations go wrong and what can be done to make sure your words get the right attention all around the world.

What is a Bad Marketing Translation?

There are many examples of bad marketing translations out there. Unfortunately, one very famous one is an American nutrition campaign fronted by David Beckham to raise awareness about drinking enough milk. The slogan chosen for the original English language campaign was ‘Got Milk’?, which was put on photos of footballers and celebrities with milk moustaches. When the slogan was translated for a Mexican audience it became ‘Tiene Leche?’, which means, you guessed it, ‘Are You Breastfeeding?’.


By relying on a direct translation, a marketing campaign can very easily become funny, ridiculous or insulting. Whilst it might gain attention, the original message which has been so carefully crafted becomes lost, making the campaign an expensive failure.

Why are Marketing Translations so Hard to Get Right?

Translating marketing and advertising materials is a complex process and is one of the trickiest types of translation that a business can face. To properly internationalise a business, there are a lot of assets that need to be skillfully translated, including social media content, everything related to SEO (tags, URLs, keywords, etc) and descriptions of products and services, as well as the marketing and advertising campaigns themselves.

On top of the sheer volume of material encompassed within marketing campaigns is the fact that marketing is highly creative. It is based on description and persuasion, and is often highly nuanced, something that can be easily lost if translated badly. Marketing is usually offering a product or service which is targeted at a fairly specific potential audience within a highly competitive market. The message needs to be carefully adapted to the customer on the receiving end, and must take into account culture and locality. Whilst some texts can rely on a literal rendering, for example when translating technical documents, marketing materials need to be approached with a much higher level of creativity and adaptability.

Common Mistakes in Marketing Translations

The digital age offers many opportunities for marketing and huge sums are spent on creating the perfect campaign. However, many companies make the huge mistake of not taking care over the translation of their lovingly, and expensively, crafted content. When this happens, errors are made which can damage a company in all sorts of ways, from a drop in sales to an irretrievably tarnished brand image. These mistakes include:

Sharing source text instead of ideas. If you want a successfully translated campaign, your translation agency needs to be fully briefed on what your marketing goals are: just providing them with the source text isn’t enough.Translators must be provided with the original copywriting guidance to make sure they hit the same brief as the original copywriter. All relevant material should be supplied, including information on tone of voice, which is gold dust to a translator.

Lack of cultural awareness. It’s not enough for the translator to be a fluent speaker of the target language. Ideally, they should have lived in the region the marketing campaign is targeting, so they are immersed enough in the local social and cultural context to understand how to convey the message successfully. Being culturally insensitive can cause catastrophic problems for a brand. Cultural awareness is also crucial because language evolves quickly, and terminology and word use popularity changes rapidly. If a marketing campaign sounds out of date, it won’t be successful.

Not localising the translation. Localisation gives a product the look and feel of having been specifically created for a particular target market, no matter the language, culture, or location. If this is overlooked then the target audience can feel alienated and won’t connect with your product. The bottom line is that if you don’t bother to properly tailor your offering to people, they won’t bother to buy it. Localisation isn’t just about words, either: it is often appropriate for images to be changed depending on the audience.

How can Marketing Materials be Successfully Translated?

For marketing materials to be successfully translated, transcreation and localisation specialists should be employed. Companies spend a lot of money employing copywriters to carefully craft their messages, but do not always see the value in paying for these messages to be successfully carried into new cultures, and will often see translation as a commodity as opposed to a continuation of the creative process of developing a marketing campaign.

Experienced marketing directors know the difference and are clued up on transcreation and localisation. Transcreation involves recreating a text from the source language to the target language whilst maintaining the original intent, style, tone and context. A transcreator needs to be completely steeped in every nuance of a different culture, rather than simply knowing the language, to ensure that the power and purpose of the original message is maintained. Transcreation conveys the emotion of a message, which literal translation often can’t.

Localisation is part of transcreation and involves honing your content even further to take into account consumer preferences in different cultures. Besides the meaning of the message, localisation takes into account details including colours, layout, visuals, units of measurement, currencies, local time and date preferences and much more. By getting these details right, the audience isn’t distracted from the content of the marketing materials by annoying or confusing errors.


To avoid costly marketing translation mistakes, marketing directors and account managers should utilise the expertise of a creative translation agency. It isn’t enough to simply translate the words from one language to another: instead the intent, tone, style and context must be properly conveyed by specialists highly skilled in transcreation and localisation. If you are spending large amounts of money on hiring the best copywriters and marketing agencies to create your marketing assets, it makes sense not to skimp on the budget when pushing that message internationally. Transcreation and localisation is a short term expense that will pay dividends in the long term. Their power to boost your brand should never be underestimated.

To avoid costly marketing translation mistakes a meticulous marketing director or account manager will utilise the expertise of a creative translation agency that specialises in marketing translations and transcreation.

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