As a multiracial country, Malaysia is a rich melting pot of religions, languages, food and traditions. Our culture and history and unique way of living and being is our pride and joy.

But it is also a potential minefield for brands to navigate. Officially, Malaysia preaches cultural tolerance, but as a Muslim-majority country swept over by waves of increasing conservatism, some quarters are easy to offend, difficult to appease and vocal in their discontent.

Movies and concerts have been canceled. Ultraman has been banned. Even the innocent hot dog pretzel has been scrutinized and found wanting. Therefore, it is no surprise that over Chinese New Year, the Malaysian trade ministry chose to go safe in their print ad.

Being the Year of the Dog, this is a particularly tricky year. A brand cannot go without a Chinese New Year greeting, but using a canine’s image may ruffle the wrong feathers as dogs are considered dirty in Islam. And nobody wants to have the conversation around their ad hijacked with accusations of insensitivity.

Hence this ad:


Featuring a barking Rooster, it has been hailed by some quarters as being pretty creative. Others have denounced it as senseless pandering to a minority, especially since the ad ran in a Chinese daily newspaper. The ministry has since issued an apology.

Lest you start thinking that only the most sensitive people in the world live in Malaysia, brands misinterpreting cultural sensitivities is something that occurs around the world.



In a similar case of wanting to avoid causing offence, Ikea airbrushed its female models out of a product catalogue distributed in Saudi Arabia for fear that it would ruffle feathers in a notoriously conservative society. The company felt that they were actually being culturally sensitive as women are rarely featured in advertising in that country.

But swift backlash ensued, with Ikea being accused of not being true to their egalitarian brand values.

“For Ikea to remove an important part of Sweden’s image and an important part of its values in a country that more than any other needs to know about Ikea’s principles and values, that’s completely wrong,” said Sweden’s equality minister, Nyamko Sabuni.

Ikea has since apologized.

Lost in translation

Honda_FittaLanguage has always presented interesting challenges for brands. After all, what works in one country could very well be obscenity in another. Like when Honda marketed their new car using a vulgar term. Launched in 2001, the car was known as Honda Fit in Asia and Honda Fitta in European markets. What they didn’t realize is that “fitta” refers to the female genitalia in Swedish.

Red faces abounded and the car was renamed Honda Jazz.

And Honda is definitely not alone when it comes to a language faux pas, as all these other brands have also gotten into hot water for weird, amusing, even mildly pornographic translations of their products and taglines.

As times and people change, we believe that brands will always face challenges with cultural sensitivities. And with no one-size fit all solution, other than open hearts and a ready ear to listen.

How is your brand culturally sensitive?

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