Lost in Translation - Gerber Happy Baby

Posted on March 18, 2015

Most marketers and business managers agree – segmenting by culture and developing appropriate marketing messages that resonate with specific cultural communities will increase penetration rates in emerging market segments.

This does not mean that you can simply translate the messages into another language, and use an image of a person from the targeted culture.  Effective cross-cultural communication needs to go deeper than that.  It requires marketers to understand the values, attitudes and beliefs of the targeted culture and how that translates into different consumer behaviour.

Even large multi-nationals can get this wrong.  Our ‘Lost in Translation’ blog series talks about cultural marketing campaigns that have not been well received by the desired audience, and in fact may have damaged brand reputation.  This blog features US baby food company Gerber.

Don’t eat the baby!

Since its inception in 1928, Gerber has featured a sketch of a Caucasian baby on its baby food packaging.  The image has become iconic, with very high recall. It is internationally known, and many people even think the baby went on to become someone famous like Humphrey Bogart or Elizabeth Taylor (it wasn’t – the model baby used for the sketch was teacher Ann Cook).  Needless to say, that baby sketch and the Gerber branding are invaluable to the organisation.

Following its success in the US, Gerber branched out internationally. It kept its iconic baby sketch on the packaging of its 200 food products that are distributed to 80 countries.  Whilst the international expansion has largely been successful and profitable, sales were lacklustre when it entered the African market.

After conducting research Gerber discovered the reason Africans were not buying its products.  The reason was quite disastrous.

Due to low literacy rates, in Africa it is commonplace to feature on the packaging a picture of what is contained in the product.  By placing its cute baby image on its jars Gerber was misleading African consumers into thinking that the product was made from babies or baby parts!

Re-branding and new packaging design was also required when selling the product in France.  The French translation for Gerber is ‘to vomit’.

Both of these examples of information being lost in translation were costly to Gerber.  I bet Gerber wishes it had done some cultural research before giving the impression it was selling babies or vomit in a jar.

Origins is an invaluable tool in cross-cultural marketing.  It provides organisations with powerful evidence of under-representation among key cultural segments prompting qualitative research to understand what the issues are and how they can be overcome – to avoid a costly ‘lost in translation’ debacle and reputational damage for the brand.

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