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International Business: Political passions quickly complicate international marketing campaigns

As PUMA learned this week in the United Arab Emirates, marketing campaigns in foreign countries are extra risky when tied to political ideas not fully understood.
As PUMA learned this week in the United Arab Emirates, marketing campaigns in foreign countries are extra risky when tied to political ideas not fully understood.

In honor of the 40th National Day in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), PUMA launched a new shoe design featuring the country’s flag colors. However, shortly after the shoes were released last week, Emirati citizens expressed serious anger over this marketing attempt to place a respected symbol on an item that is considered very dirty in Arab culture.

“Puma should have borne in mind the cultural sensitivities of the people of the UAE,” said one Emirati professional to “The flag is a very sacred symbol for the UAE. It cannot be trivialised, especially not as footwear.”

Puma recalled all the offending shoes from stores earlier this week and issued an apology. Interestingly enough, this uncomfortable incident was not entirely a case of a large, multinational company ignorantly failing to consider the input of local markets. In fact, a marketing manager for PUMA Middle East noted that the design was the winner of a local design competition through the company’s Creative Factory campaign.

“The shoe was never intended to upset or offend our customers here in the Middle East, but to give the people of the UAE a piece of locally created design as a symbol of recognition of this great occasion,” said PUMA’s statement.

PUMA had great intentions of appealing to UAE patriotism and no intention of being controversial; in fact, the company was not tackling what it thought to be a controversial issue, and it even solicited local input. However, the shoe manufacturer learned the hard way that marketing campaigns tied to political ideas can be very precarious. Politics can stir up very strong passions, and no brand wants to fall on the wrong side of those passions.

In 2002, UK candy maker Cadbury sparked similar fury when it ran an ad in India to promote its Temptations chocolate bar with the slogan: "I'm good. I'm tempting. I'm too good to share. What am I? Cadbury's Temptations or Kashmir?"

Considering that tens of thousands of people have died in disputes between India and Pakistan over the Himalayan territory known as Kashmir, many Indians were understandably outraged by any marketing that seemingly trivialized the conflict. You may recall the sensitivity of this topic from a previous column about when Microsoft’s Windows 95 operating system clashed with India’s government when a small map made Kashmir appear to be separate from India.

Like PUMA’s recent blunder, Cadbury’s decision to run the risky chocolate ad was the decision of local management at Cadbury India, a wholly owned subsidiary of Cadbury Schweppes in the United Kingdom. Nonetheless, because Cadbury is foreign owned, consumers assumed this faux pas resulted when a large multinational completely disregarded local sensitivities.

"From time to time local management make mistakes,” said Cadbury Schweppes in an official statement. “This was clearly one and we trust that Cadbury India's apology, which was made in good faith, will be accepted by those offended by the advertisement."

"This was ill advised,” said Michael Collins of World Writer to the Guardian newspaper. "You always try to tap into local market's insights and culture to make your adverts more impactful. But in this case they may have got more than they bargained for. It has to be done with sensitivity or it can backfire in your face."

Politically precarious marketing tactics are nothing new. In 1927, the Studebaker car company introduced the “Dictator” automobile. Although the brand name sounds dreadful to modern ears, it reportedly fared relatively well in its day.

"A number of European monarchies to which Studebaker exported the car were wary of the moniker,” writes author Benjamin L. Alpers in his book “Dictators, Democracy, and American Public Culture.” “Diplomatically, the company marketed (the car) as the 'Director' in these countries. In the United States, however, the name appears initially to have caused no problems . . . Yet, after 1937, the name 'Dictator' was abruptly dropped by the company.

"With decades of hindsight, the decision to drop the name appears only natural. As one history of the Studebaker Corporation puts it, ‘no one could have predicted in the peaceful days of 1927 . . . that a madman would arise in Europe to give dictators a bad name forever.’"

Personally, I find it difficult to imagine a time when dictators did not have “a bad name.”

All three of these offending companies did many things right. They consulted local employees and partners about the politically-charged designs, advertising copy and brand names. The companies also adapted, corrected and apologized when they ran into trouble.

However, this is a reminder that politics is a marketing minefield and that all marketers must use extra caution when alluding to political concepts in advertising campaigns, both foreign and domestic. To play it extra safe, most marketers may benefit from leaving politics to the politicians and altogether avoiding the risk of that emotionally-charged business.

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at Brigham Young University. Email: Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten.