Adventures in Mistranslation: HSBC’s Call to “Do Nothing”

hsbcbankHSBC Holdings is a bank used throughout the world and based in the United Kingdom. Known worldwide by its tagline, “The world’s private bank,” HSBC was not always branded that way. The past few years have seen a $10 million rebranding campaign for this bank due to a serious – and hilarious – translation error.

What Went Wrong

Like other translation issues in marketing, the problem was a very simple mistake. The tagline was supposed to be “Assume Nothing” – which didn’t work out in translation. The call to action became, in a number of countries, “Do Nothing,” which obviously doesn’t work out when the goal is to get someone to use your services.

HSBC, while not primarily used in the United States, is actually the sixth largest wealth manager worldwide, and has stood out in the finance world for its success – but definitely turned people away with its slogan.

The Lesson Learned

For such an enormous company with operations all over the world, it might be surprising that the translation error was so extreme. “Do nothing” is definitely not the message you want to be sending out to consumers. Just like the errors made by Quink and Braniff Airlines in my earlier post, it’s hilarious on the one hand, but in practical terms doesn’t exactly work out for a marketing campaign.

What it comes down to is cultural sensitivity and the help of an ace translator or translators who know the ins and outs of both the source language and the target language. As with any marketing campaign, though, errors may be inevitable. The solution is to fix the problem. HSBC actually let the problematic campaign run for several years before remediating the issue – yikes. While rebranding was a great move, it might have done well to occur earlier.

What it all comes down to is attention to detail. Little mistakes – like a slogan for a worldwide company that doesn’t translate well – are not only going to make consumers snicker, but could deter them from your message. By fixing your mistakes early on (or making sure they don’t take place at all) you can avoid a lot of headache!

Has your company ever made an error like HSBC’s? What did you do to correct it?

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Tree is a somewhat nomadic graduate student pursuing an MFA in Poetry and Literary Translation from Drew University. A self-identified “diplobrat,” she spent over 16 years living as an expat in countries like Guatemala, Bolivia, and Tanzania. Tree graduated from Smith College in 2012 with a degree in Spanish Language and Literature, a minor in Studio Art, and a concentration in Landscape Studies. In between writing poetry for school and content for CEM, she dabbles in goat herding and freelancing. Other interests include reading, watercolor painting, gardening, and traveling.

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