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It’s been well over a decade since the acronym BRICS was introduced into the marketing lexicon.  

While steps from foreign brands entering these markets have been largely tentative to date, the World Cup means the eyes and curiosity of the marketing world are now firmly rising to the B of the BRICS, Brazil.

Brazilian culture and consumer spending power (not to mention football) can be beguiling, but brands trying to capitalise on the event need to be wary of succumbing to the dreaded FOMO: fear of missing out. 

The Brazilian opportunity

In spite of its infamous bureaucracy, with a rapidly emerging middle-class, extended lines of consumer credit, and one of the most digitally savvy markets in the world, few would deny the Brazilian opportunity.

A friend here recently summed it up well, comparing São Paulo to what he imagined New York must have been like at the turn of the last century: a little intimating but brimming with excitement, opportunity and entrepreneurial energy

The country features the world’s fourth largest mobile market, the second and fifth largest Facebook and Twitter userships respectively, and a social media economy expected to be worth £238m by the end of the year.

Small wonder then that local agencies and brands consistently produce outstanding creative work, as a glance at the winners of any recent international marketing awards will attest. 

To date though, steps into Brazil by foreign brands have, by and large, been measured. And rightly so.

Launching in Brazil requires a serious long-term commitment, not to mention an excellent accounting and legal team. Strong local relationships are fundamental; collaborating with the right partners, that can lend credence to a proposition and help navigate the many potential pitfalls, is crucial to a brand’s long-term success.  

Even at the highest levels of business, the ability to communicate in Portuguese is normally required and, while the country may seem proudly united in matters football, in reality Brazil is fragmented into many widely varying cultural and consumer groups.  

It’s a country as rich with cultural intricacies and nuances as it is with opportunities. You only have to look at a brand like Johnnie Walker to see this in practice. Its positioning is clearly tailored to different regions, in one place tapping into pride in family and local heritage, in another presenting itself as a symbol of individual success

But, unsurprisingly, it’s the football that’s threatening to upset the calm and tempt marketers to up the tempo. Though in truth, the London Olympics are partly to blame too.

Ever since everything suddenly went right in London, we’ve all realised the power the feel-good factor a global sporting event can produce in a digitally mature age. The bar has been raised and brands are determined not to be left behind

Regardless of construction deadlines, cynical press reports and local protests, the truth is success in London – particularly from a global brand perspective – has only heightened anticipation for both the World Cup and Olympics in Brazil. 

With marketers anxious not to miss out on a potential green-and-yellow jackpot, there’s a real chance we could see a few foreign brands trying to run before they can walk. History is littered with cautionary tales of marketers who’ve tried to cross cultural divides only to end up with egg on their faces.  

There was the time Pepsi opted for a literal translation in China, offering to raise consumers’ ancestors from the dead. Kellogg’s once introduced ‘Burned Farmer’ cereal in Sweden, while Coca-Cola have themselves built a rich history of inadvertently offending, or just plain baffling their audience.

One ambitious sky-writing stunt in Cuba was sabotaged by a rogue gust of wind, leaving the ominous message of ‘Fear Coca-Cola’.

With two sporting events of such a global nature imminent, the temptation can be to chase the success, glitz and excitement seen on TV across borders through seemingly "quicker win" digital channels. But such events don’t work in a vacuum.

Real success in Brazil requires a considered, well-thought out approach. Brands that have tried to be successful with lots of hype but without an adequate product or distribution, or a clearly defined reason for being here, have never worked well in Brazil.

It is essential companies don’t assume that demand for western brands will be enough in itself – a local flavour is always required. 

Much like its national team, Brazil is a very exciting prospect, but equally, it can quickly make a fool out of those without their eye on the ball!

Lost in Translation: brands tripping over the Brazilian cultural divide 

1. KIA  

Automotive makers are notorious for their passion for exportation of their vehicles across the globe, with little consideration for the gaudy monikers they’d bestowed upon them.

Mitsubishi launched ‘the masturbator’ in Spain, Toyota offered Puerto Ricans the chance to drive an ugly old woman, while nobody at General Motors managed to clock that ‘Nova’ (or No Va) translated to ‘It doesn’t go’.

Kia was the unlucky brand to come a cropper with Brazilian/Portuguese slang. Although a popular model in other countries, the Besta van performed poorly in Brazil. While ‘besta’ can mean ‘beast’, it also doubles as a rather derogatory term for an idiot.

2. Revlon 

Revlon attempted to launch a perfume in scented with Camellia flowers, overlooking that the fact that in Brazil, Camellia flowers are synonymous with funeral services.

The company was chastised for its insensitivity and the product was recalled. 

3. Richard Nixon 

The language barrier is one obstacle, but the idea that actions speak louder than words is universal and perhaps an even more highly dangerous trap for those heading to Brazil as Richard Nixon did in the 50s. 

What was intended as a good-will trip quickly turned sour when then-Vice President Nixon greeted the Brazilian populace with what we’d recognise as two ‘a-ok’ signs.

Unbeknownst to Nixon, for Brazilians, the round ‘ok’ sign is roughly the same as giving someone the middle finger

4. Chana 

In 2011, Chinese car manufacturer Chana has big international expansion plans, but was forced to alter its trading name to Changan upon entering the Brazilian market. 

While spelt differently, ‘Chana’ was phonetically identical to a slang term for female genitalia. Not the ideal opening gambit for a new group of consumers.

5. Ford

Perhaps the most famous story of them all came courtesy of Ford in the early 1970s.

The Ford Pinto is a relatively unremarkable name for a car at face value, and sold well in Europe. But, in launching the imported model into Brazil, that they discovered ‘Pinto’ is Brazilian Portuguese slang for small male genitalia

Unsurprisingly, the model was subsequently renamed Corcel, which (continuing a certain theme), means horse or steed!

Alasdair Townsend

Published 12 June, 2014 by Alasdair Townsend

Alasdair Townsend is Managing Partner at  Anglo-Brazilian agency Sherlock Communications and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can find him on Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+

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