Rude food: when brand names have a different meaning in other countries

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6 min read
AUTHOR: James Halliwell
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Some perfectly innocent foods, like the aubergine or the peach, have had naughty associations thrust upon them. But when translated into other languages, some food and drink brand names are clearly rude, yet exist in blissful ignorance of this unfortunate fact.

Getting the global brand strategy right is of the essence for a food and drink company. A product name or packaging that could be acceptable and make perfect sense at home, might shock or be derided abroad, ruining a business’s chances of entering the global market (or in the best case scenario, necessitating a name change and a costly rebranding).

Here are some examples of brands from around the world that have caused surprise, outrage or giggles (or all three).

Fok Hing Gin

We’ve all woken up one morning, looked at an empty bottle of gin and groaned ‘fu**ing hell’, but Fok Hing Gin, distilled by the Incognito Group, took things further in 2017. Ostensibly named after a street name in Hong Kong (Fuk Hing Lane), a complaint to the Portman Group, which is responsible for handling complaints over alcohol advertising, suggested the name was “clearly intended to shock and be pronounced as an offensive term.” It went on to say “despite claims this is a Hong Kong language term meaning good luck, it’s obvious the intention is to shock and offend those who find swearing undesirable and unacceptable.”
A stunned Incognito Group, which owns the gin brand, disagreed with the complainant, and said ‘Fok Hing Gin’ was an English romanisation of traditional Chinese, which meant ‘Fortune and Prosper’. It also said that actually, far from meaning to cause any offence, they had deliberately replaced “Fuk” with “Fok” to make it all okay. The Portland Group then produced an advert Incognito had used online that the complainant had referenced, which read ‘FOK THE HATERS. More than just a funny name, we actually taste FOK HING good.’ Incognito said that was just “banter”.
Portman was unamused and said the name was “in breach of Code rule 3.3” and “likely to cause serious and widespread offence.” Incognito has since toned down the banter and the brand remains on sale, name intact, with more of an explanation about its use of Hong-Kong-based botanicals and the story behind Fuk Hing Lane.

Mr Brain’s Faggots

The UK has excelled over the years with unintentional translation fails, with stodgy British classics like spotted dick perplexing the rest of the English-speaking world. And it may be a West English and Welsh speciality, but putting faggots on a menu will not play well in the US, where the term is used as a derogatory reference for homosexual men. That saw it fall foul of Facebook’s algorithms in 2013, and anyone referring to them was blocked, but Facebook later relented, blaming a ‘misunderstanding’. The most famous branded faggots – which almost as bizarrely are also sometimes called ducks – would be those produced by Mr Brain’s, and you can understand the reaction from anyone to a product called Mr Brain’s Faggots, wherever they’re from. Still, Herbert Brain opened a grocery business in Bristol’s Temple Street in 1890 and started making delicious faggots in 1935. The brand – which controls around 92% of the faggot market – is now produced by Kerry Foods. A factory filled with stainless steel equipment pumping out thousands of the things may not conjure up the same warm glow as Herbert busying himself in the kitchen, but nevertheless they remain a supermarket staple in freezers. No doubt Kerry Foods is extremely cautious not to mess with a much loved vintage recipe, though for a pork product there is a distinct lack of it – each pork faggot contains just 4% pork, plus liver, herbs and breadcrumbs. But what it lacks in pork, it makes up for in salt – each serving of a single faggot, and the accompanying sauce, contains 47% of adult’s recommend daily salt intake.

Shito

Despite the potentially unpleasant experience its name suggests, Shito is one of the most delicious sauces ever to emerge out of Africa. Ghanaians are rightly proud of their signature condiment, a spicy pepper sauce that enthusiasts always find room on their plate for. Ghanaians use Shito (which means pepper) as a dip, a marinade, a dressing, a sauce or as a base for soups and stews. Ingredients include ginger, dried fish, prawns, tomatoes, garlic, peppers – as mild or as hot as you enjoy – and various spices. The fact that the sauce is so sensationally good adds a twist of irony to the way the name translates in the UK. It’s sweet, smoky, spicy and addictive.

Starbucks Latte

Over in Europe, Germans enjoy a large erection in the morning, often with a plump muffin, though in the UK we just call it a latte. Starbucks found out the hard way that in Germany, latte translates into pole, which is German slang for an erection. It thrust its lattes into sleepy German faces first thing in the morning when it opened two German outlets at 6:30am in 2002. But despite completely untrue suggestions they lack a sense of humour, Germans found the whole thing amusing and Starbucks have kept the name to this day.

Got Milk?

To the USA, and the Got Milk? campaign, which launched in 1993 in California to make milk more popular, is one of the most famous marketing slogans ever created. Eschewing verbiage for a minimalist approach, it’s two-word strapline was simple and effective, and it was paired up with images of some of the biggest stars in the US, including Britney Spears, Beyoncé, Rihanna, The Simpsons, Batman and Mario with a ‘milk moustache’. It was considered a hugely successful campaign in terms of cut-through, reaching an estimated 90% of Americans, though whether the campaign was successful in actually selling more milk is debatable. However, it definitely didn’t play so well with California’s Latino community, as no one realised that Got Milk translated as “Are you lactating?” in Spanish – which doesn’t make anyone but a hungry baby fancy drinking milk, and for cultural reasons, the idea of a Latina mother running out of milk is considered highly offensive. The campaign was dropped country-wide for unrelated reasons in 2014, though it continues in California.

Feto Tofu

Italian vegans happily munch away on tofu while their nonnas look upon them with barely concealed disgust for rejecting a delicious meat ragù. But Italian vegans would probably pass on Feto tofu. Sold here in the UK, vegans would eat it perfectly happily, but in Italy feto translates as foetus, and given vegans are often caring and loving individuals that avoid hurting anyone or anything, the prospect of eating something that conjures up images of babies may not appeal.

Plopp

Swedes have a naughty sense of humour and are famous for their liberated attitudes, though Plopp, a chocolate bar invented in 1949, is a perfectly wholesome name in Scandinavia. In the UK however, plop is straight out of the playground book of giggles, guaranteed to raise a chuckle from any child – and adult alike.

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