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International Business: International missteps in shoe branding

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, shoe retailers including have been advertising Nike shoes with the name “Black and Tan,” a reference to an Irish drink. However, this marketing move has kicked up controversy instead of sales because the moniker also evokes memories of a paramilitary group that threatened the Irish almost a century ago.

“Critics have highlighted the historical connotations of 'Black and Tan' and the term's connection to the Royal Irish Constabulary Reserve Force from the 1920s who became notorious for their attacks on Irish civilians during the War of Independence,” reports the Belfast Telegraph.

The error was quickly corrected, and Nike apologized.

"This month Nike is scheduled to release a version of the Nike SB Dunk Low that has been unofficially named by some using a phrase that can be viewed as inappropriate and insensitive,” said a Nike spokesman. “We apologize. No offense was intended."

Unintentional marketing faux pas like this are nothing new to the shoe industry. With footwear companies shipping a plethora of new brand names to countries worldwide, branding blunders such as these have caused no shortage of problems.

From 1999 to 2002, Umbro sold a shoe named “Zyklon,” the German word for “Cyclone.” That definition by itself sounds harmless, but Zyklon was also the name given to a gas that the Nazis used to murder Jews in concentration camps. Umbro discontinued the product after the Simon Weisenthal Center brought this unfortunate connotation to the company’s attention.

Similarly, in 1997, Reebok executives were horrified to learn the company’s Incubus brand name for a new women’s running shoe originated from the name of a medieval demon that preyed on sleeping women.

Shoemakers have stepped into public relations nightmares not only for shoe brands with violent connotations but also for shoes tied to sacred and respected symbols.

Just last year, this column reported that PUMA launched a new shoe design in the United Arab Emirates featuring the country’s flag colors. Emirati citizens resented this marketing attempt to place a respected symbol on an item that is considered very dirty in Arab culture. Other markets that consider shoes unclean have presented similar challenges.

“The Thom McAn Company traditionally sells shoes with a nearly illegible “Thom McAn” signature printed inside the shoe,” write authors Terri Morrison, Wayne Conaway and George Borden in the book “Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands.” “But when it tried to sell footwear in Bangladesh, a riot ensued in which more than fifty people were injured. It seems that the “Thom McAn” signature looked like Arabic script for ‘Allah.’ Outraged Muslims decided that Thom McAn was trying to get Bangladeshis to desecrate the name of God by walking on it — an insult in any culture, but especially in Bangladesh, where the foot is considered unclean.”

Likewise, in 1997, Nike recalled its Nike Air shoes with a flame logo — by some accounts, the company recalled as many as 800,000 shoes globally — because the symbol also resembled Arabic script for Allah. Author David A. Ricks writes in “Blunders in International Business” that a Chinese company committed a comparable faux pas in Egypt by intentionally printing seemingly random Arabic text on shoe soles.

Nike, Reebok, PUMA and other shoe brands are by no means global branding failures. These companies have obviously seen a great deal of international success. However, with an endless flow of new product names and an equally unending supply of potentially negative connotations, even these marketing geniuses will occasionally misstep. Ultimately, their gaffes serve as a helpful kick in the pants, reminding marketers to perform international brand checks before settling on new product names.

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.